The Psychology of Curiosity: A Guide for Content Creators.

The internet is full of tips and advice on what to do to create curiosity, whether it’s by asking questions or drip-feeding information.

But you might pose a question or withhold information and still find it hard to maintain curiosity. The introduction can pique readers’ attention, but in between the article, they lose interest. 

TV shows, however, have mastered the art of retaining their audience’s attention. And there’s a lot we can learn from them. So I did some digging. I went through scientific studies and research papers to understand the nature of curiosity and how binge-worthy shows grab our attention. 

I put all that I learned into this article. By the end of it, you’ll understand the psychology of curiosity and be able to use that understanding to arouse curiosity within your own circumstances. 

Curiosity stems from your pre-existing knowledge.

As much as curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something, it starts with what you already know.

Baby Wide Eye GIF - Baby Wide Eye Kids GIFs

Two years ago, for example, I would never have picked up Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I had no thoughts about becoming a content creator. But now that I’m more familiar with content creation and its nuances, I can’t wait to dig into it.

You see this pattern with online content as well. You land on one article, and in no time, you progressively move from topic to topic. The pre-existing knowledge you have on something fuels your desire to know more.

A study by Kang, a former researcher at the California Institute of Technology, confirmed this. She found out people were:

  • Most curious when they had some idea about the answers to trivia questions. 
  • Least curious when they had no clue about the answers.

The same applies to tv shows. As each episode ends with a plot twist that leaves you guessing what might happen, the anticipation of watching the next episode depends on how much you’ve gathered about the plot from previous episodes so far. The more you know about the plot, the more curious you become.

But what actually prompts you to want to know more is the shift of attention from what you know to what you need to know

This realization of a gap in your knowledge triggers the need to know more. But as we’ll find out only to a certain point.

The search for cognitive harmony.

The year is 399 B.C. The government condemns Socrates to death for corrupting the youth about Athenian democracy. 

But he neither offered opinions nor claimed to know anything during his interactions. In fact, he had more questions than answers.

Yet, it was these questions that the Athenian government felt threatened by. Socrates revealed the unexamined assumptions people had about their democracy. He probed their logic, exposing gaps in their knowledge. The government eventually noticed and didn’t take kindly to this. So they sentenced Socrates to death.

His system of questioning would come to be known as the Socratic Method.

“There are many things that people don’t know and that doesn’t bother them, but awareness of specific pieces of missing information can prompt an unreasonably strong desire to fill these gaps.”

George Loewenstein

The shift of attention to the unknown led Athenians to look for answers to fill in the gaps. Therefore, it’s not surprising Socrates drew so many followers. People needed to find closure, and they believed Socrates could provide it.

The same applies to tv shows or any other content you consume. The shift of attention from what you know to what you need to know compels you to watch the next episode or read that article. A part of you is dying of anticipation. You might have a vague idea of what may happen, but you can’t help but find out what actually happens. In no time, just one more episode quickly becomes a binge session.

How we get hooked to tv shows

This need to know the unknown also explains why clickbait headlines attract attention (yes please, tell me the money-making secret banks don’t want me to know).

But our attention to what we don’t know wanes off at some point. You’ll notice that the anticipation of watching the next episode has lessened. The interest in reading that article subsides halfway through. This is because we seek just the right amount of novelty.

Not too much, not too little, and in that lies the ability to maintain curiosity.

Maintaining curiosity.

We are natural seekers of novelty. Anything beyond the usual draws our attention from space exploration to the fancy new toy. 

Curiosity, however, varies with the degree of novelty. 

If there’s too much novelty, then it becomes difficult to remain engaged, while too little of it loses our attention.

I once tried reading Frederick Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, but I found it difficult to understand. All I could do was skim past the chapters to get a glimpse of what it’s about, and I still got nothing. Likewise, you’ll likely stop reading an article if it sounds just like five other articles you’ve already read.

Celeste Kidd, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, conducted a study that confirmed this. She found out infants allocated more of their attention to image patterns that were surprising, but not entirely new. They also avoided allocating cognitive resources to either over-the-top predictable patterns or completely novel patterns.

The right balance of novelty keeps people engaged. However, finding that sweet spot can be challenging. The information coming in might be too familiar to them and slow down the pace or too novel and sidetrack people from the plot or main idea.

Here’s how you can find the right amount of novelty to hook an audience using Loewenstein’s information gap theory: 

Violating expectations: This involves presenting information that conflicts with expectations. Having an expectation means the idea is familiar to you. And its violation means there’s something new to be learned.

For instance, look at the first paragraph in this article:

The expectation is, if an idea sounds absurd, I would definitely dismiss it. But Paul Graham goes against this. And this triggers a search for an explanation.

The biggest headache faced by content creators, however, is keeping an audience’s attention. Something that I sometimes struggle with. “After this paragraph comes this idea,” I tell myself, hoping to structure a piece of content well enough to keep people’s attention. 

The sort of thing binge-worthy shows, best-selling books, and widely read articles do well. But what makes them engaging, as you’ll notice, isn’t some kind of enchantment, but a simple structuring of the narrative. As they open and close the information gap, they reopen the gap with information that’s more valuable than before. They reopen the gap with a certain amount of novelty.

Take the Queen’s Gambit, for example. The second episode opens the gap by shifting attention from how Beth is coping with life outside the orphanage to how she’ll defeat the Kentucky state chess champion without having played in any tournament.

The gap then closes with Beth crowned the Kentucky state champion. But it reopens at the end of the episode where Beth eyes to win another tournament in Cincinnati. 

This back-and-forth closing and reopening of the gap with more valuable information maintains our curiosity.

Walter S. Campbell, in his book, writing nonfiction (1945), couldn’t have put it any better: 

“Never answer the question you have raised until you have raised another question, preferably a more important one. In that way, you create intellectual suspense.”

Something that Paul Graham does quite well. Look at how he closes and reopens the gap with more valuable information:

The value of information increases with every paragraph. And In no time, reading one paragraph turns into the entire article.

The sniff test.

Tactics like asking questions or showing a surprising statistic can stir curiosity. But if what you’re saying is something entirely new to people or they are all too familiar with it, then it would be difficult to get their attention.

This brings us to this simple sniff test I came up with to help you understand how to gauge what you have to say to get people’s interest:

This ensures what you are communicating isn’t too familiar and predictable or too novel.

Let’s take it for a spin:

Here, Paul Graham writes on a familiar topic. This allows him to pique our interest by switching attention from what we already know to information that we don’t know or might not have thought of before.

I’m not an expert by any means. But I know how difficult it can be to create engaging content. And I believe this understanding of curiosity will help you craft sentences or paragraphs that have the right amount of novelty to hook people.