Is a 'curiosity gap' controlling what we click on?

By: Kate Kershner

Screenshot of BuzzFeed's home page on March 3, 2014. Do any of those sample titles make you curious? The pizza guy one makes us curious and hungry.
Screenshot of BuzzFeed's home page on March 3, 2014. Do any of those sample titles make you curious? The pizza guy one makes us curious and hungry.
Screenshot taken by HowStuffWorks

Anyone who has a job and Internet access knows the appeal of procrastination is hard to resist. Why else would we feel compelled to click on titles like "Elephants never forget, but this pachyderm is one you'll remember for a lifetime"? (A made-up title, but in my imagination that's a story about an elephant that creates portraits of terminally ill children using only peanut shells.)

Heck, it doesn't even take a job. Just having the entirety of the world's information a keyboard away is enough to send most of us down a rabbit hole, whether or not we have something more pressing to do. So why do we sometimes go against our better judgment to click on a headline? It might have less to do with procrastination and more to do with an urgent psychological need to make sure we're not "missing" information.

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There's a fair amount of debate about why we're curious. Is it an innate drive (like hunger), or does it stem from an external event that doesn't seem to fit into our worldview, and thus needs exploration? Does curiosity reside in all of us, or is it something that's only aroused by certain external forces?

Psychologists certainly don't have a definitive answer (although HowStuffWorks has the definitive article), but they have been playing around for years with different theories about the foundations of curiosity. For example, in the early 1990s, George Loewenstein (a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon) argued that curiosity is the result of a perceived "gap" of information in our knowledge that we feel is a deprivation.

This curiosity gap, some argue, is the reason you feel the need to stop working on that financial report for your boss and click on an article titled, "How peace in the Middle East would be possible if we listen to this one little boy." It does pique your interest, but why?

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Curiosity Clicked the Cat

Hey, buddy, don't you want to know which Spice Girl you are? Or which celebrity stashed a burrito in her purse while attending the Oscars?
Hey, buddy, don't you want to know which Spice Girl you are? Or which celebrity stashed a burrito in her purse while attending the Oscars?
Ramonespelt/iStock/Thinkstock

Sure, it's a joke, but let's get into this made-up headline about the peace-brokering child. Assuming you're not a believer in power-wielding kid politicians, you probably don't actually think that clicking on the link will have any kind of satisfying answer to solving a long-term war.

And that's exactly the strange conundrum about curiosity. We often aren't offered much in return for our interest. Completing something like a crossword puzzle or solving a riddle may offer a sense of satisfaction but not much more. So why do we do it?

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Loewenstein's curiosity gap ideas might provide a clue. When we feel curious, the theory says, we're frustrated to feel there might be a hole in our understanding. And it doesn't matter if the hole is gigantic -- say, contemplating the universe's expanse -- or small, like wondering what impressive-enough thing a kid could say to end political strife. When we feel that gap in our knowledge, we need to sate our appetite for it and decrease or ditch the feeling of deprivation [source: Loewenstein]. In fact, just the act of satisfying curiosity brings us pleasure, apart from what we even "learn." So what do we do? We click on the article to feel that we haven't missed anything.

Translated to the real world, this idea is practically a playbook for anyone looking to sell something -- or generate clicks. Advertisers or view-driven Web sites need only use the formula repeatedly: Write a headline that promises a teeny tiny bit of information -- information that readers can't possibly guess from the headline alone, but implies an answer that can sate whatever curiosity the headline aroused. Upworthy, a content aggregator site, even cites Loewenstein's curiosity gap theory when describing how to write a clickable headline.

So it's possible that we click links because we find even the slightest hint that we're "missing" something irresistible to correct. Of course, it's also possible we're just having the kind of day where we know watching a cute video of a kid or an elephant will make us feel that much better.

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Lots More Information

Author's Note: Is a 'curiosity gap' controlling what we click on?

It does seem likely that we click on provocative links because it satisfies an itch of curiosity. But that doesn't necessarily account for everyone's individual sense of interest. While you might find a headline like, "You'll never guess who teaches this lesson about tolerance" hard to resist, I'm more likely to ignore that and eagerly click on "Puppy and baby play peekaboo," a video I know I'll love.

Related Articles

  • Gentry, James W. et al. "Managing the Curiosity Gap Does Matter." Developments in Business Stimulation and Experiential Learning." 2002. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://sbaweb.wayne.edu/~absel/bkl/.%5Cvol29%5C29am.pdf
  • Lane, Robert and Kosslyn, Stephen. "Show Me!" Microsoft. 2014. (March 4, 2014) http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/powerpoint-help/show-me-what-brain-research-says-about-visuals-in-powerpoint-HA010277194.aspx
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "The Itch of Curiosity." Wired. Aug. 3, 2010. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/08/the-itch-of-curiosity/
  • Loewenstein, George. "The Psychology of Curiosity." Psychological Bulletin. 1994. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/sds/docs/loewenstein/PsychofCuriosity.pdf
  • Pappas, Stephanie. "Curiosity's evil twin can drive you insane." LiveScience. Dec. 12, 2010. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/10866-curiosity-evil-twin-drive-insane.html
  • Reyes, Andie D. "The curiosity gap." The Guidon. Dec. 26, 2013. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.theguidon.com/2013/12/the-curiosity-gap-going-viral/
  • Thompson, Derek. "Upworthy." The Atlantic. Nov. 14, 2013. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/upworthy-i-thought-this-website-was-crazy-but-what-happened-next-changed-everything/281472/
  • Upworthy. "How to make that one thing go viral." Slideshare.net. Dec. 3, 2012. (Feb. 26, 2014) http://www.slideshare.net/Upworthy/how-to-make-that-one-thing-go-viral-just-kidding

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