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Why Aren’t We Curious About the Things We Want to Be Curious About? (nytimes.com)
324 points by diaphanous on Oct 24, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 119 comments

Worth noting that the ability to indulge practically any idle curiosity ("who was that guy in that one movie again?") with almost no effort is very new. Unless you happened to have the relevant book of trivia, or maybe a good encyclopedia for some things, and you were at home or otherwise somewhere those were physically located, you couldn't find out without quite a bit of effort. That kind of stuff just dropped out of one's mind almost as quickly as it came up. You might ask the people around you, and if they couldn't remember, oh well, off it goes.

If you wanted to know something, you had to work at it or premeditate and spend time and/or money to be ready to find out information in a certain category (having the right books, mostly).

Your brain didn't nag and insist that you go find it out right now, generally, for every little question of near-zero importance that happened to cross your mind. That's a curse of the Internet age.

A few people I know immediately go to their phones to check facts during hangouts and conversations. I find it pretty off-putting, that those close to me value a trivial fact over staying fully connected with the conversation. There is some dopaminergic itch that must be scratched here, and I find like most itching, it doesn't end up paying off for more than a second.

>A few people I know immediately go to their phones to check facts during hangouts and conversations. I find it pretty off-putting, that those close to me value a trivial fact over staying fully connected with the conversation.

>, can we have screen-free time together?

>, or can we look at each other and shrug and move on with connecting with other humans and not screens.

I wasn't there at your meetings so if you truly felt ignored, I can't argue with feelings.

That said, let me offer a different perspective: someone quickly going to a smartphone screen to look something up that's relevant to our conversation shows they are more engaged with me and our conversation. It's like being in a professor's office and we discuss something and it prompts the professor to get up from his chair and pull a specific book from the shelf and page through it to clarify a fact. That shows caring. Or when you talk to a friend and you mention something about a specific place and they say "Oh, I happen to have a photo of that" so they go get their photo album and show it to me. That's staying connected with our conversation. I don't say, "I wish our real-life interactions were book-free and photo-album-free."

It really isn't the screen hardware that's the measure of (dis)engagement. It depends on what they're specifically doing on that screen. If the person is distracted with typing Facebook replies, then yes, they're totally ignoring our conversation. On the other hand, if they're visiting wikipedia or doing a google search to enhance our talk, that's great.

EDIT to add an example weaving in some "screen time" to enhance a conversation. A priest talking to Google employees on how he uses their search engine during conversations with friends to clarify facts. Deep link at 2m40s and watch for about 1 minute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enDhX49F3XI&t=2m40s

The problem is that it often takes a while to look up some information and even small breaks in the conversation leave the other person sitting there twiddling their thumbs. Often when someone asks a question, they don't care that much about the answer; they're just making conversation and getting to know you as a person: what you know, care about, and how you react to things. A lot of people are bad at recognizing whether the information they looked up is worth killing the conversation for 20 seconds. Often it isn't! If I wanted to know the answer to a simple question I just asked I could look it up myself. But I didn't! I asked you. That is different from your professor example since he presumably knows so much more about the topic, he can help you learn what to look up.

Looking through a photo album together can often spark more conversation and keeps the other person engaged. The same isn't true of a phone.

> It's like being in a professor's office and we discuss something and it prompts the professor to get up from his chair and pull a specific book from the shelf and page through it to clarify a fact.

As a former professor, visiting a professor during, say, office hours, is not quite the same as spending time with a loved one (whether that be a parent, sibling, spouse, friend, what-have-you). The context for such a meeting is to share knowledge and information, which discursive domain provides the reason for meeting in the first place.

In many interpersonal meetings between loved ones, knowledge and information are a secondary or even more remote consideration to the basis of the meeting. In such cases, looking up trivial information is not necessarily a form of care but a form of distraction.

It takes judgement to know when looking up a piece of information is germane to the interpersonal context or whether doing so is incidental.

EDIT: Furnish missing object "care".

> The context for such a meeting is to share knowledge and information, which discursive domain provides the reason for meeting in the first place.

Yes, that underlying context is true but you're missing the point of my example. The professor example was not about "information" vs "friendship". It was meant to illustrate "engaged" vs "disengaged" in the conversation which is orthogonal to whether the context is teacher/student or friend/friend.

For example, professor X sits there with arms folded across the chest thinking the student doesn't really care about his class and is only there to lobby for a good grade. Therefore the professor just answers, "Uhm, yes, I see. Well, I don't know what to say other than make sure you get your final paper in by next week".

On the other hand, professor Y was genuinely intrigued by something the student said and it spurs him to search his bookshelf and clarify something. He didn't have to physically get up to get a book but the conversation was engaging enough to do so. When the professor temporarily turns his back to the student to fetch a relevant book, that doesn't mean he's less disconnected from the conversation; he's actually more connected.

That's what I'm trying to convey: maybe measuring how much time your friend's eyes are glued to your face isn't the best way to measure connectedness. E.g. The professor X with the unbroken stare towards to the student was actually less engaged than professor Y that paused the conversation to find a relevant book.

Like I said previously, I can't argue with others' feelings. This thread shows me that everybody seems to have different thresholds of annoyance for others using their smartphone to look up something. Personally, I'm never slighted or offended by it. I actually feel complimented if our conversation prompted their fingers to type out a search request because of something I said. Just last week, I was talking with a friend about iron supplements and as we were talking, she typed in a search query for the most iron-rich foods. It was great as the conversation then flowed into spinach, tofu, etc.

Thanks for expanding on your initial thoughts and for relating those expansions to my response. (First rate engagement. A+++ would read again.)

I agree engagement and relational context are orthogonal, and I think your elaboration captures very clearly what I mean by using

> judgement to know when looking up a piece of information is germane to the interpersonal context or whether doing so is incidental

Professor Y clearly cares and that care is expressed by looking up information. My main point to your first comment was that sometimes the nature of a relationship and a meeting will make most citations of fact irrelevant. For sure, sometimes meetings between close relations will benefit from citations of fact.

Reading above, I don't think we're in disagreement, though we may be focusing more tightly on different scenarios.

Thanks for engaging!

> Or when you talk to a friend and you mention something about a specific place and they say "Oh, I happen to have a photo of that" so they go get their photo album and show it to me. That's staying connected with our conversation.

Entirely depends, this has happened many times to me with a different result. Eg the place was less important to a story being told and looking in their phone for a photo takes minutes and the rest of the narrative was almost completely ignored or derailed by a different photo. That’s not being “connected” to the conversation IMO, that’s being narcissistic. Where as a simple “oh, I’ve been there” without the phone can be encouraging the story teller and showing interest in the conversation, pulling out your device I think can show the opposite.

Not imo. It's like the worst. My experience:

We're having a really nice conversation about movies. Oh who was the actor in such and such? Oh I dunno, let me tell you about another movie I he might be in that I really enjoyed. Third guy: Let me read to you some IMDB right now so we can stop talking about what interests anybody and listen to the entire synopsis about the guy that any of us could do in our own time.

"Check facts" as in investigating tangential issues, or as in fact-checking assumptions?

If the latter, then that'd seem very healthy. People can come to all sorts of strange conclusions about topics like politics if they're allowed seemingly reasonable assumptions that they sincerely believe to be probably true. If they're not fact-checked, then discussions on topics like politics can quickly devolve into meaningless hot air.

Wikipedia shows that the [principle of explosion](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_explosion) can quickly lead to absurd results in a few short examples, but the short examples are for brevity. In common practice, it's long discussions involving a lot of seemingly innocent approximations/assumptions that get off the tracks so subtly that many folks don't seem to realize it. ([Obligatory xkcd](https://xkcd.com/2217/).)

It'd be different if my friends checked climate change facts, but it's usually pointless pop culture trivia. Do we need to know completely irrelevant information about famous people, or can we look at each other and shrug and move on with connecting with other humans and not screens.

Learning skills often involves toy examples initially. If you're a programmer, was "Hello, world" your first program? Is there anything immediately useful in being able to generate that particular result?

Researching is a skill. Researching quickly, accurately, and effectively takes both knowing that this is possible and knowing how / where to go for information.

And no, I'm not saying that it's necessary to break up every last conversation on some point, or that all facts must be verified. But it's a useful practice and skill, there's a great deal of this that doesn't happen, and where a discussion does hinge on the ability to produce and verify facts, this can be quite useful.

I find discussions in which a point is both germane and verifiable but people actively avoid checking it to be ... rather disappointing. More frequently in professional, scientific, or political contexts, but all the same.

> It'd be different if my friends checked climate change facts, but it's usually pointless pop culture trivia.

This sounds more like a difference in interests than a difference in conversational etiquette.

I do understand the disillusion with how pocket-sized screens have affected human communication, but I also love being able to google citations in the middle of a conversation. I imagine I'd get more annoyed by the behavior if it was related to a topic I had no interest in.

Maybe try to find friends with vaguely similar interests? I don't demand that my friends are interested in everything I'm interested in (and I wouldn't have any friends if I did), but if there isn't some decent amount of overlap in interests I'm probably not going to enjoy conversing with somebody for an extended period of time.

Edit: quote formatting.

There's a real itch to little trivial questions now that there didn't used to be. The pre-Web days are getting hazy but my recollection is that I didn't think up 1/10 as many trivial questions as I do now, and each one now has about 10x the apparent urgency they used to. The ability to get an answer in 10s flat to any low-value question has changed my thinking, to say nothing of the "rabbit hole" effect once you go looking for an answer. I have to consciously push that stuff back to keep it from being (to me) weird. Observing others leads me to believe my experience is probably more normal than not (plus there's social media and all that, which, HN aside, I've managed to avoid falling into by just never starting to use it).

It may not just be a difference in interests. Even trying to keep it to a minimum and being aware of the phenomenon, I still spend a fair amount of time in a week looking up stuff I don't actually care about, will soon forget, and which certainly doesn't serve any need.

I have some relationships where we value trivia as a part of our discussions. And looking stuff up is fun for all of us.

Maybe the type of people and the relationships you have determine the experience in this case?

Maybe your group is different, but I want someone to engage fully with me as a person, not check their phones for a fact that doesn't matter. Something like, what was Robert de Niro's second major film? This matters zero, can we have screen-free time together?

If you want them to fully engage with you, then you can't possibly ask them any questions which require any kind of meaningful thought. The human brain can't think deeply about a topic while also holding an attentive conversation with someone. The only difference is that the disengagement for a phone is extremely visible, whereas it's usually just a slight "tell" when they're thinking deeply (the eyes roll to the corner and they squint slightly, for instance).

They're still disengaging, though.

I think you misunderstood, I said "some relationships". If you don't care about /any/ trivia, perhaps that is why you are annoyed by this?

I have a few groups of very deep thinkers where trivia is a waste of breath. And yet, we still want to look things up because the answers deeply matter to us like origins of words (etymology), accurate quotes from like minded researchers, etc... These are things that once answered move our discussions deeper or in unique directions.

Maybe next time someone does this ask them why they are interested in the answer at that moment? I feel if you are genuinely interested in the other person's experience (especially if you think it's trivial) they will more likely care about yours.

Knowing little facts in a million different areas helps me contextualize and reason about new information, recognize patterns, discern signal/noise, and know when something might be accurate or inaccurate. If something comes up once there’s a good chance it’ll come up again or plays a part in some pattern that will come up again. I’d also argue that most of the time if something as trivial as who was in some movie is already a part of the conversation, then it’s not further trivializing things to go down that rabbit hole vs the original.

Obviously being a bad conversationalist or listener is bad, but it’s not necessarily just an itch to want to know things.

My rule is to only look things up in order to settle bets of at least a dollar. It works.

How do you feel about looking up non-trivial facts (eg talking to someone about having a meeting and looking up when you're both free), or answering a text (and how do you know if that text is salient to your conversation or not), or just being bored - reddit/HN/etc. More importantly, how do you tell the difference when the other person whips out their phone? It's downright rude to go off and check reddit if we're in the middle of a conversation, but if we're waiting around for a third person and that person is nowhere to be seen, I welcome that we're both checking our phones for messages from them.

I wish there were some way to communicate "hey, no, my phone use is actually importantly relevant to our conversation (wherein, trivia facts, such as found on IMDB, don't count)"

While I don't agree with you on the core argument (me and all my friends are instant fact checkers), I do have an anecdote to share.

A couple years ago my wife and I spent 3 days on a train through India without any data. A bunch of times subjects came up we couldn't just google. Instead, we discussed them for hours, interrogating and deducing answers to questions we would have jumped straight to the answers for back home.

(it wasn't trivia like "who was the actor in the movie", it was curiousity questions like "I wonder what was the origin of so and so law", and "I wonder how so and so mechanical/physical property works"

> You might ask the people around you, and if they couldn't remember

What I recall is that people around you would remember - but there was a good chance they were remembering incorrectly.

Yes, two people would remember differently and there would be a heated debate, followed by oh well..guess we'll never know.

"Your brain didn't nag and insist that you go find it out right now, generally, for every little question of near-zero importance that happened to cross your mind. That's a curse of the Internet age."

The curse is that if it isn't instantly available, most people assume it doesn't exist, on or off the internet. And that shapes whether things are available, on or off the internet.

It's not the accessibility, but the pruning that is rapidly changing society.

As a 20-something year old, I avoid doing this on the NYT Crosswords app (which is a significant exercise in trivia). My rule is I come back to a missing line later and if I _still_ can't get it, I go through my contacts and text someone that might know.

The answer lies in understanding the Utility of the Novelty Seeker to a Group.

If groups don't need it, expect novelty seeking to be snuffed out and fast. Don't complain about it just go look for a group that needs you.

Not everyone is a novelty seeker - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novelty_seeking

Small populations don't need too many novelty seekers. If everyone in a village is curious about Tigers, sooner or later everyone in the village would be dead. As populations grow the number of Novelty seekers increase and sooner or later the village has knowledge of how to tame the Tiger.

In terms of groups or teams that work on problems that have known solutions, having Novelty seekers around can be a big distraction/waste of time and energy as they goof off and wander.

But for teams working on problems unknown, Novelty seekers are a must have. Nothing is guaranteed when working on unknowns, but the team will learn more/make progress with a Novelty Seeker around than without.

While sites like HN attract Novelty Seekers from all over and there is some spillover into startups (many working on problems with unknowns) this process of matching Novelty seekers to groups that need them has WAYS to go.

We do it in very inefficient ways and lacking awareness. Sometimes we misidentify them (lot of people pretend to be novelty seekers cause it gets them on teams) OR Novelty seekers are put in charge OR they want to be in charge Or we think we need a Novelty seeker on staff 24x7 when actually we just need them to come in and take a look at a specific problem once a week or once a month. These mistakes can be avoided if you know the role the Novelty Seeker plays in society and what problems they are needed for.

>The answer lies in understanding the Utility of the Novelty Seeker to a Group.

You've made an interesting comment about "novelty seeking" but I just want to try and clarify what the author's article is talking about. Some representative sentences from the article:

>When I’m surfing the web I want to be drawn in by articles on Europe’s political history or the nature of quasars, but I end up reading trivia like a menu from Alcatraz prison. Why am I not curious about the things I want to be curious about? [...] You just need to frequent better foraging grounds. [...] The challenge is changing its focus from the momentary to something more enduring.

As a meta comment about Daniel T. Willingham's categories of curiosity which he really isn't making explicit... to him, there's "worthy" curiosity and "worthless" curiosity.

To be inclusive and charitable about humanity, we can acknowledge that just about everyone is curious about something. However, if a person is mainly curious about Jennifer Aniston's new boyfriend or other celebrity gossip (low brow non-academic) instead of being curious about quasars or capital-forming effects of military mobilization (high brow academic), that person is labeled "not curious". (I.e. We think of the prototypical scientist/mathematician as "curious" but the teen who reads People Magazine or Vogue to see the latest fashions as "not curious".)

The author is writing specifically for the audience who's already in his mental category of "worthy curiosity". However, that person who's actually interested in quasars is currently surfing CNN website reading click-bait stories and Mr. Willingham is offering his ideas why they were led astray.

He's targeting people already like him who are predisposed to seeking new information on worthy academic subjects but got temporarily sidetracked with news trivia (e.g. the Alcatraz menu).

For the others that get their dopamine fix of celebrity gossip to satisfy their particular form of curiosity seeking, Mr. Willingham isn't talking to them or even trying to explain them to the high-brow curiosity seekers.

How worthy is it /really/ for a psychologist to read up on quasars?

If the bridge crew is killed in an alien attack, the spaceship's psychologist will need to use quasar navigation to return to Earth. I'm currently accepting bids on the movie script.


Is the specific knowledge about quasars useful to a psychologist? That's hard to say. But is expanding your mental toolbox and exercising you mind useful to someone who engages in primarily intellectual labor? That seems likely to the case .

> How worthy is it /really/ for a psychologist to read up on quasars?

That's a question for that particular psychologist to ask and answer for themselves. And not you nor anyone else.

People have different levels of curiosity. The benefit of their curiosity isn't something that can quantified and might very well amount to nothing of any utility. That's OK. Not everything has to have an explicit ROI or "worthiness".

But if you require "worthiness" consider that the psychologist might have a kid at home who has a question about quasars. What could a well-stated and intriguing answer to such a child lead to? It's impossible to say, but whatever he says it will be better than what an incurious psychologist might respond with-- "I don't know. Finish your homework and brush your teeth before going to bed".

Worthiness is a sort of fundamental. It's hard to argue for or against before getting to a subjective value judgment.

For the purpose of this discussion, I think it's enough to just leave it at "because the psychologist in question thinks it's worthy."

I think it's important to have at least a passing understanding of the cosmos, to keep things in perspective. That's not specific to psychologists, though, really applies to anyone.

Sure that case is a stretch, but I am curious about a lot of things that would really help my career or my social goals, but I still get stuck on a garlic or arguing about Apple and Google and China on HN.

I think the simple thing is that I've picked the low hanging fruit and what I need to learn and work on is hard for me to learn and work on, and I have no pressure to excel from parents and schools and potential mates, so I don't do it.

How worthy is it for anyone at all to study quasars if the knowledge they gain is not disseminated?

Novelty seekers sample the space of ideas and solutions that are unknown to the group, essentially generating hypotheses that the group then tests against its own objective functions, whether those are functional or aesthetic.

The group must necessarily generate surpluses in order for the novelty seekers to have the time and energy to generate new hypotheses. On the other hand, novelty seeking itself must be grounded in some minimal way with the experience of the group, else it will lose its meaning to the group. There is always a tension between the two. The cutting edge of such novelty seeking is probably in controversial forms of modern art.

Of course nobody knows the conditions that give rise to novelty seekers. The old adage "necessity is the mother of invention" is probably a fallacy. Necessity is more likely the force that chooses the most optimal inventions that were themselves generated using surplus time and energy.

Another way to think about this is as Novelty Seeking rather than Novelty Seekers. Novelty Seeking means we don't discretely divide groups into one type of person or the other, but rather, we allow a portion of anyone's time and energy to be dedicated to Novelty seeking, depending upon their propensity and desire for such pursuits. Arguably, this would get a large enough group the broadest and most diverse set of hypotheses.

Is anything that you’re saying based in a published theory that I can read about? Or, are you just making this up?

That's the perennial HN question.

Sounds like he's just appealing to HN's "I'm a super special boy" mentality.

>Small populations don't need too many novelty seekers. If everyone in a village is curious about Tigers, sooner or later everyone in the village would be dead. As populations grow the number of Novelty seekers increase and sooner or later the village has knowledge of how to tame the Tiger.

That's an anthropology way to looking at it -- which could be OK if one is speaking for some remote villages or tribes.

The modern world though is so complex and cross-cutting that I don't think this applies, at least not in the same way.

For one, novelty seeking is hardly associated with survival for most people and groups (like in the village/tiger example).

Second, each of us has tons of different outlets for that novelty seeking, not just a single group.

I think anthropology has a lot to say about how we tailless monkeys intuitively behave in modern complex civilization.

My point is, its because it isn't associated (in the minds of most) with survival/success/growth of the novelty seeker or a group requiring a novelty seeker, do we end up with the question - Why aren't we curious about we want to be?

Lots of "villages"/groups/teams/orgs have misunderstandings of the role of the novelty seeker. And lots of novelty seekers have misunderstandings of how they can fit in.

interesting, I've never heard of novelty seeking, but both your description and wikipedia's describes me very well.

What I've found from a lifetime of experience is that I absolutely need to be able to scratch that itch, and I need to be given the autonomy to do it or I quickly learn to hate life until I move on.

Wikipedia states that it's highly heritable, and I remember my mother telling me the reason she would go through and completely rearrange rooms in the house is because it gave her the feeling of having moved to a new place. I'm wondering if that's the result of her having that temperament as well.

IME, reading quick articles or googling for a word doesn’t work too. But there is a way to get an interesting information. I built my curiosity stream by checking channels on youtube (it has non-crap channels, despite my beliefs). It wasn’t a quick process. One video by another I filtered content and made a subscription set which feeds me a couple or more videos per week that are good content and build my curiosity, as tfa explained. When there is more free time, I just check archives and find even more. Now I have a non-distracting queue of knowledge that requires nothing to sustain.

Funnily, before that I never hit “subscribe”, because it was perceived as a time-spending pit. And it is, for many “funny cats” or “fail compilation” channels which produce videos twice daily.

All this works because every piece there has easy connections. Articles do not connect – I have to lookup the author, register to subscribe, then manage updates from many sites, etc. Streams from mass-media like yt are more comfortable to follow and there are many suggestions from other channels on the topic.

Any way for you to share a few of your YouTube channels? I love watching channels such as 3blue1brown, numberphile, sixtysymbols, deepskyvideos, etc. it’s true what you say about sitting down and actually watching more than just a sound bite. Having context of things helps a lot with learning.

However, I am lacking in some development channels.

Hi, of course! 3b1b and numberphile are two of my favorites too. Especially featuring Neil Sloane and prof. Tadashi Tokieda (no intent to undervalue other stars and/or Parker squares).

PBS network is also great. I watch PBS Eons and PBS Spacetime the same time I see a notification dot.

Recently added Astrum because of nice pics. melodysheep caught me with their timelapse videos. These two are in wait-and-see category atm.

Also Jay Foreman for british humour, London history and mapmen. Primer posts rarely, but was definitely worth a sub.

That’s all. I visit few more topics/channels by hand, but they are of entertainment nature (starcraft tournaments, local evening letsplays, etc), thus no sub as it would create an unwanted distraction. As of games, MkIceAndFire plays them with decent skill in no commentary, no overlay style. Btw, when you’re on a channel, you can check “channels” to see if an author likes or links to something on their own account.

Hope you like some of these!

>development channels

Sadly, it never clicked with me, despite (or because) me being full-time dev since when youtube still wasn’t a thing. It just feels either too slow or too shallow/instructional rather than deep and full of decades of wisdom. Idk, can’t force myself to watch any of these anymore.

> Many websites that snare your time feature scores of stories on the front page, banking that one will strike each reader’s sweet spot of knowledge. So visit websites that use the same strategy but offer richer content, for example, JSTOR Daily, Arts & Letters Daily or ScienceDaily.

or HackerNews :)

The articles linked to in HN aren't always the most fruitful, whereas the comments are a universe of wonderful discussion. I've learned dozens of things from browsing the comments here, which makes sense as we have world experts in dozens of fields who are regular commenters.

I usually get my HackerNews updated through the feed in Telegram, which means I usually go straight to the comments before even reading the article. Reading them is really nice, as it lets me gauge if I think the article is worth a read, then engage in some great conversations about it.

This is why I keep coming back. It is not unusual to see world leading scientists, book authors, and startup CEOs in a quick browse of the comments. The kind of people you want to be at dinner party conversation with, if your goal is intense technical discussion.

One idea is that population competes for positions, and that restricts your choices early on. You could imagine that you're either pushed away or drawn into some position. Another point of view is to see your actions through constraints, which is an inter-related point of view to competition. You're bound by money, time, energy (you can do just so much), and other resources. You can see your situation also trough psychology. You have fears, traumas, addictions, etc. Then there's intelligence that translates into how good you're at creating goals, how good you're at seeing yourself, how good you're at listening yourself, how good you're at solving problems, and how aware you're of your current condition, etc. in addition to having the ability to become better at such matters.

It's clear that all these things define how well you're in control what you're doing. There are a lot of outside sources of influences that you need to be aware of. All kind of distractions, commercials, games, noise, propaganda (manufacturing consent?). Your society wants you to do this, your employer wants you to do that, and often times you feel you have to give in, which means that you're fighting for control on a psychological level.

Creating your life so that you're 100% in control all time is very difficult, if not possible, but you can become aware of what's happening in yourself as you click mindlessly trough the internet, or when you do things/tasks you don't really want to do. You can change yourself to overcome procrastination in order to become a person that knows what he's doing, not just because you have to, but because you want to. You want to take part in society, you want to work for good causes, etc. You want to study in university to get into a certain position. And all this will that you're aware of diminishes the amount of random choices you make, I claim.

> When I’m surfing the web I want to be drawn in by articles on Europe’s political history or the nature of quasars

That's the problem right there. Articles are the white sugar of information. They contain a tiny amount of actual info, but not enough to be useful in any meaningful way. If you truly want to learn about something, read a book or a paper. Articles will get you nowhere.

You mean journalistic articles, not scientific/published "articles". Also, to paint all journalistic articles as white sugar is simply flat-out wrong. There are numerous fantastically written journalistic articles written by fantastic book writers. These can be jumping-off points to then purchase a book or find that scientific publication.

I think it's better just to call them layman's writing instead of white sugar, as processed sugar is basically a toxin. Understanding layman's writing will get you nowhere in the real world, except as a stepping-stone to further knowledge. Sugar, on the other hand, is actively harming people and is not a stepping-stone to healthy living.

There's a tremendous amount of bad scientific writing as well. Much of induced by publish-or-perish, grant-chasing, and signalling dynamics.

For journalism, relevant, incisive, investigative journalism is gold.

Much of what's written is simple pro-forma, filler, stenography, or worst of all: republished press releases -- APR and VPR (audio / video press release) for radio and television, the original "fake news": https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Fake_news

A key question for me is whether the article intends principally to inform rather than persuade or distract. Virtually all current business, "style", entertainment/culture, and big-ticket sales (real estate, autos, travel) "reporting" is thinly veiled advertising. A large fraction of political coverage is either stenography or persuasive rhetoric.

Writing with the reader in mind, or at least with the writer's (or client's) ego / wallet, out of mind, is rare.

Under your definition, I'd classify most magazine and news articles as processed sugar. It is toxic, to the extent that clickbait headlines, inaccuracies, errors and lies in articles, convey negative knowledge to the reader.

I'd say popular magazine articles and research articles share similar demerits, just from different perspectives. The popular article is shallow and broad and overspimplified while the research article is deep and narrow and usually overcomplicated.

Thus both provide a less than ideal introduction into any novel subject, though I see most popular articles as less 'toxic' than most research articles, especially towards encouraging further interest in the neophyte reader.

Real reason is that actual function of that browsing is relax, not bothering with difficult parts, getting thrill or other emotional reaction and forgetting next day. Following impulses and reading something easy to read. Meanwhile articles on Europe’s political history or the nature of quasars are education - fundamentally different mental task.

I think better than a book is just being curious about the world around you. Why does only my front car window have frost on it? Why does my granola bar wrapper emit light when I open it under my covers? You are guarenteed to learn relevant things that change your worldview instead of relying on whatever you are told to be curious about. Think for yourself, but you should also be curious for yourself.

And then when you try to google for information on these things, you end up reading the very same short articles.

This morning my neighbor's car had frost on it, but my car didn't. I thought about it for a good chunk of my commute!

You haven't read some of the amazing books that are out there if you've got that attitude.

I disagree, an article from a good subject/specialized encyclopedia (as opposed to a general encyclopedia) is an excellent introduction to a topic and will be written by scholars in that field.

I think by "article", the comment refers to article like in news or in some general audience site, not on specialized place.

There are news articles about the political history of Europe?

No, and that's the problem. We crave the dopamine thrill of "news", but history would be much more useful to our understanding of our world.

Did the parent gave the impression that he meant encyclopaedia articles?

I call my blog posts articles.

They take multiple months of research.

What should I call them?

Blog posts occupy the space between tweets and papers. Higher quality blog posts can contain a lot of useful information, but can never replace an actual deep understanding of the topic. You couldn't expect readers of your blog posts to then go on to write a novel blog post of the same quality on the same topic.

Readers of one book can't write a book of the same quality on the same topic.

I don't frequently find myself needing that level of knowledge

Yours might be better than 99% of what gets read. Or it could be like a Marvel movie: a lot of hard work for you to create, but not substantially meaningful to a viewer.

OOC - could you share a link to your blog posts?

Check out Efficiency Is Everything

I just spent a few minutes poking around your website and I love that I was able to do that without a box popping up begging me to subscribe to some newsletter. How refreshing!

I'm not sure I fully agree. Someone who really knows their topic well and is skilled at explaining it can often explain in simple terms with relatively few words. Many papers on the other hand seem be written with filler either to put on airs or to make the paper appear to have more info than is actually there.

I know this is not true for all papers or topics but it does seem common enough that I run into it frequently.

Completely agree. I run Thinking About Things[1], an email newsletter with one interesting link every day, and the goal has always been to make the reader more curious about the topic and be motivated to find out more - not to satisfy an intellectual itch.

[1] https://www.thinking-about-things.com

if you’re not reading about some subject you think you’re curious about, can we still call it being curious about said subject ?

Maybe you just find the idea of being curious about the subject cool.

Makes me think of this quote ascribed to Picasso:

When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.

So maybe the author is not curious as an artist, but curious as an art critique.

There's a saying that having a typewriter on a desk is not the sign of a writer, it's a sign of someone who wants to present the image of a writer, to feel like a writer but without the hard bit of having to labour over writing something, to be seen as a writer.[1]

LessWrong talks about "Science as attire"[2] thus: "The X-Men comics use terms like “evolution,” “mutation,” and “genetic code,” purely to place themselves in what they conceive to be the literary genre of science.", and TheLastPsychiatrist wrote endlessly about narcissism in modern society - caring about our image and how others perceive us and how we control how we seem, over and above taking action and doing things (for others).

When the article said "I want to be drawn in by the nature of quasars", these things are what came to mind; maybe the author finds the idea of being curious about the subject cool; maybe the author wants to feel and appear smart and Quasars fit that image a lot more than popular macaroon flavours do. Yet Quasars have the difficult part of needing to read papers about radio astronomy and study masters degree level math, probably.

This has been a bitter, hard to learn, and not very thoroughly learned lesson in my life, and I feel a pang of identification with the author on that note. How much cooler and cleverer does their article look for their claim "I want to be curious about Quasars" instead of had they written "I want to be curious about cardboard glue" - and yet does the substance of the article change at all for any value of X in "I want to be curious about X"? I think it doesn't, I think only the image changes. It's name-dropping Quasars.

It's the Richard Feynman vignette[3] about learning the names of a bird in different languages from his father, and then being shown that afterwards he knows nothing - but nothing - about the bird, and that being important in his focus on detail and how things behave, rather than studying names and descriptions.

At least the author can dodge to macaroon articles and still feel like they are learning and feel superior to another version of themselves where they just stared at the wall - reading is cleverer than doing nothing. Even when the thing they read is irrelevant, forgettable, flashy but insubstantial, disconnected from their knowledge. Why can't they simply say "I read about macaroon flavours because it was there and caught my eye"? Because that sounds weak and stupid.

> This function of curiosity — to heighten memory — is the key to understanding why we’re curious about some things and not others. We feel most curious when exploration will yield the most learning. [..] We’re maximally curious when we sense that the environment offers new information in the right proportion to complement what we already know.

Do we? How did the Alcatraz Menu fit into this claim?

My much less cheerful answer is that the author doesn't want to be curious about Quasars (radio telescope measurements and calculations made from them and mathematical models built from those), the author wants to be seen as someone interested in science (but not the nerdy topics which would bore a polite dinner party, only something popular and safely irrelevant), and is feeling shameful and inadequate about clicking on an Alcatraz menu. NB. I say ashamed at reading trivia because it's not smart enough for the image the author wants to portray, deliberately not guilty at the waste of time which could have been spent helping others instead. The Alcatraz menu was interesting, so the time was 'well spent' by some metric, so the author isn't unhappy with low productivity or bad use of time, the author is specifically unhappy at the use of time not being up to the image they want to portray to the world. "People would think I'm stupid if they knew what I was reading about, so I'd better dress it up in a NYT opinion piece then I can feel and look smart again". (I accuse).

[1] The sign of a writer is some writing - output from the act of writing - be it on typewriter or pen and paper or computer, etc.

[2] https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/4Bwr6s9dofvqPWakn/science-as...

[3] Richard Feynman anecdote in an interview https://youtu.be/GNhlNSLQAFE?t=240


I couldn't agree more, and I'm also still learning this lesson. There are so many subjects for which I love the idea of being interested in, sometimes for years. The knowledge about these subjects is freely available, often in abundance, yet I rarely go seek it.

However, I'm still not sure what plays the bigger role in my lack of action: laziness + the abundance of junk content, or simply the lack of any real interest. Perhaps a combination of both.

Thank you!

Can someone suggest good career options for person with novelty traits ? (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novelty_seeking).

Once you are settle down in a certain career (for example, IT/software development), not having to satisfy the itch for novelty seeking can make things really boring for you. So, my next question - how do satisfy that itch in a given career, say IT?

So - I am a strong 'novelty person'. Much of my life revolves around change and newness, and constant, ongoing learning (I've moved from travel wholesaling to banking to startups to energy to mining to bio-pharma to...who knows?). At the beginning of my career, I spent about 6 months working in a bank before I realised that working with the same people, the same task, the same desk day in and day out was not for me. I was not learning all that much after the first 2 months. I realised I needed to stay in 'those first two months' - where everything is new, where you are constantly learning the ropes - but before anything gets repetitive.

So I became a management consultant; and it's awesome; my job changes every 10-12 weeks, with a new office, new team, new clients and new challenges. I can travel for projects if I want a new city, new bed, new bars etc, or I can stay at home and explore.

I work with a lot of technical folks in the field; devs, architects, project managers, business analysts, analytics specialists - all with (broadly) the same passion for learning and change that I have. If you're interested, check it out - there's lots of benefits, lots of great opportunities and a ton of learning to be had, as long as you can balance the expectations and demands.

Consulting can be good; a new tech stack, a new org with new weird dysfunctions every few months. A new project, new teammates, new shareholders, etc. It never feels like the same job, though of course some things can remain static- you're still a programmer, architect, PM, etc.

Bespoke research, technical or business analysis.

It reminds me of that sienfeld episode where George says he always wanted to be a civil war buff.

This is why I have 20 unread books on my Kindle and at night when I'm looking for something to read I can't find anything.

That's like saying there doesn't exist riveting brain-changing books out there, which just isn't true. (Keep searching until you've found your bliss.)

This is like asking, "Why can't I decide to enjoy broccoli if I believe it's healthy to eat?" The evolutionary story behind curiosity notwithstanding, it seems to me that this is just a case of the more general observation you can't alter your desires simply by reflecting on whether they are good or bad.

Except that you can, by just doing the things you want to do until they become habits. It's not really much different than going to the gym or deciding not to drink too often. Even though you might want/not want to do the thing, you still do it because you know it's better for you.

The better way to say it is that it's difficult to alter one's desires via reflection, not that it cannot be done.

That’s an issue I kinda wish I had, I get curious about lots of random non-practical things. Atlas Obscura is a great source of enjoyment.

That's exactly the problem that the article is talking about and it's so commonplace that there are quite a few running jokes about it, TVTropes being a common one.

One of the very few (somewhat) positive traits of having adult ADHD: this particular problem does not exist. If you want to be curious about something — even if it is a slightest spark of interest — it immediately activates to full-blown involvement, sometimes bordering on obsession.

I have spent a year studying quantum mechanics full time on my own, reading textbooks and practicing exercises, because I was mildly curious about quantum physics at some point. Got me fired from my job back then, as it had nothing to do with QM.

This is not always a good thing. :)

Answer is simple - we think we know it. Once you think you know something it immediately all excitement and interest disappears. But can you really know anything absolutely, fully in this Universe? Someone involved into science should answer what grows more with study - knowledge or realization of one's own ignorance?

Someone said "I know only one thing - I know nothing", to me this is the most profound understanding of the limitation our knowledge has.

That's not true for me, I know very little electrical engineering/low level programming/embedded devices etc and wish I knew more, and yet I can't muster enough inherent interest to learn more. But I'm generally very curious about stuff and regularly read news/studies/documentation and get lost in wiki holes, but for a lot of useless stuff I don't really have a use for. So this is definitely an issue for me. I do profile myself and work as a generalist, and am good at trivia games, so I've managed to deal with it. But I would like to get better at specializing in things.

For me, the reason I can't seem to be able to get started with electronics is that I know I have a much smaller scope of where I can take the project from the start. If you build something good, but it looks home-made, it will be perceived as cute, not cool. Manufacturing is what makes or breaks this. But paying for expensive equipment or outsourcing manufacturing is not feasible for hobby projects. In software, I can make a hobby site people will mistake for a real product, and if it by chance takes off, it is easier to make it into one. Making toys which look like real products is easy in software, that's what SV seems to be all about. In hardware, I feel like this is much more difficult to do. And that's discouraging, even though I know it should not be, because the learning experience alone is worth it.

If this doesn't whet your appetite and make you feel like you've learned something, I don't know what will. But it's a hard course.


This was another good one, more practically applicable to a programmer but less low-level:


Thanks for the suggestions!

I need to enroll to see the contents of the first one, but I will look into it!

>But I'm generally very curious about stuff and regularly read news/studies/documentation and get lost in wiki holes

Well this is it, the curiosity comes when you know there is something you don't know.

>but for a lot of useless stuff I don't really have a use for

That's a different matter, usefulness depends on billion factors around us and things which you consider useless might very well one day define your life.

> Well this is it, the curiosity comes when you know there is something you don't know.

But your original post stated the opposite:

> Answer is simple - we think we know it. Once you think you know something it immediately all excitement and interest disappears.

Which is what I responded to. Did you leave out a negative?

And to your second point: Yes, it's not too unusual that I've gotten use out of previously pointless information.

I don't think that it's "we think we know it". I'm absolutely sure I don't know as much as I need to about, say, SOAP (not my usual wheelhouse but current project requires it) and I'm equally sure I am really not curious about it.

I'm super curious, though, about a whole bunch of things that I really don't need to know anything about with any urgency. New SpaceX launches, how to build CNC milling machines, ultralight aircraft... I know plenty about these and it's never enough.

I don’t really think this is true. Actually, personally I find it difficult to diversify my interests: I like a couple of specific topics and spend most of my time learning about those, and it’s somewhat difficult for me to look into things that would be useful to know but I haven’t done much work with.

>things that would be useful to know

Again, I'm not talking about usefulness - it's altogether another dimension.

>I find it difficult to diversify my interests

Try a simple thing - pick anything outside of your interests and ask all sorts of questions about it to yourself, to see how much you really don't know. Some examples could be - where does it come from? who invented it? under what circumstances? how come it has this color/size/shape/feeling? how come it's this material? how come it takes this time?

I promise - you will discover all sorts of strange, funny and fascinating stories which you could not imagine. This is a way to spark interest.

> I promise - you will discover all sorts of strange, funny and fascinating stories which you could not imagine. This is a way to spark interest.

Oh, I don’t have a problem finding interesting topics outside of what I already know: I spend too much time on Wikipedia reading random articles already. The issue I have is that I can’t bring myself to be interested in things I should cultivate an interest in, like machine learning or databases.

>things I should cultivate an interest in

It's only you who defines these things. It seems that currently you find random Wiki articles more worthy than machine learning or databases.

You think it is not so, but do not discard what you are actually doing as "bad habit", "lack of discipline" or something - see that this is not coming from nowhere, this is what you want on some level.

I'd contend you only know something if it's contained within a very rigid and small box that you can easily hold within your mind. Like, I can learn all about a sample dataset, but my real-world SQL data sources are vastly dirty and have tons of edge-cases I learn about from week to week.

For 99.9999% of things, there is simply too much depth and breadth to ever hold that information-box in your mind.

The article is interesting and raises a good point, but I don't think it really solves anything.

With the right perspective on (understanding of) your mental processes, deep, useful, questions like this cease to exist. They are solved. I've had success recently with subtle self-control over curiosity and motivation, and the way to do it is just as simple as it intuitively feels.

Reconfiguring your brain to follow through on your stated goals is a simple process over time that relies on simple goal-setting and reward. You set up a system of trivial goals, always at whatever pace you enjoy, and expand their novelty and risk factor. Being very simple and increasingly binary, this process can easily crystallize in your physical brain. Yet it is ever expanding in complexity as you become excited at your progress in broadening intelligence.

This is the kind of thing that some will want evidence for. Those are the ones that won't be able to make use of it. Follow intuition; only you can convince your inner self of truth in progress. Science is only a semi-precise tool for helping this process, as the controls of any experiment are infinite in reality.

BTW, the comment on Novelty Seeking was great hos234!

Is the problem that we're not curious about the right things? Or is it more that passively wandering through a crap-garden has an astronomically small chance of offering you anything but crap? (Not to put too fine a point on the "crap" thing, because that's not really my point.)

The piece talks about those who read, but elides the free agency of those who offer. Clicking on an article someone offers is not just moving through an unbiased and natural "world" and interacting with it like picking berries off a bush. This world was built by other humans, framed by other humans, who decided what to offer. Behind every article is a human with an agenda and perhaps traffic & revenue targets. If you let them determine what you read, yeah there will tend to be a mismatch. This is not an "opportunistic" approach, it's a "passive" approach.

Let's say we were talking about pizza instead. You want pizza. Do you go wandering around hoping someone offers you pizza? Pretty sure if you don't already know where to get pizza, you go look up pizza. But then are you like "Oh but there are 'thousands of hits' for pizza, boo hoo?!" No, that is what success at finding pizza looks like. Sorting out which one is your favorite pizza, the one that's just right for you from all those many options is like, the least amount of work you can frigging do. It's fortunate-people problems.

If you're curious about something, this author was right the first time: Just look it up. First hit is almost always Wikipedia, which is fine. Start reading, and you're off to the races. They even have hyperlinks to all related terms/concepts that might need explication or that you might be, ahem, curious about. Yep it takes some minimal amount of will and discipline to read and click links and direct your own learning. If you can't muster that, you're kind of in trouble. But do it anyway; practicing will make you stronger.

I can only speak for America society, but in my experience after a certain age general novelty seeking is discouraged. We've all experienced the feeling of being bombarded by questions from a toddler, but after a certain age we restrict the "universe of relevant questions" to be context specific.

As someone with ADHD, novelty seeking has never been an issue for me. Generally I think it benefits society as a whole to have a robust number of novelty seekers in the population -- but in a society where specialization is rewarded so greatly it can be a frustrating trait.

I think it's the more disruptive forms of curiosity that are actively discouraged -- where you publicly question whether a fundamental fact is wrong and suggest that it be corrected before we proceed with sopme standard operating procedure that others depend on. Pretty much everyone hates that.

But I think when curiosity is kept private, or you state that your explorations are personal, peripheral, and nowhere near anyone's critical path, curiosity shouldn't pose a threat.

But it is curious that after you leave school, curiosity is more often discouraged than encouraged in our society. It seems like 95% of people just want all their beliefs forever to be correct, certain, unchanging, and unthreatening.

May be it's not contributing/promoting our https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai

Because your attention is your future self. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16x8vd2L4cw

Yeah that, or school real beats curiosity out of you. By the time you are done, you are a husk of the once curious human being you used to be?

The premise of the article seems odd to me. Am I just unusual in the fact that my interests and curiosity are very closely aligned?

Still paywalled for me.

Alternative is

curl https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/opinion/sunday/curiosity-... > nyt.html

- “You’ve been clickbaited by your own brain”

- full-screen paywall whooshes in


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