Divine curiosities: Can being curious about religion increase likeability?

(Courtesy of Caroline Phan)

Contrary to the old expression “curiosity killed the cat”, recent research by Professor Cindel White at York suggests that being curious might make you more likeable. The research focused on perceptions surrounding religious and non-religious curiosity. 

“While we know a lot about how curiosity is valued in scientific and educational contexts … we wanted to know whether curiosity would also be valued in religious contexts,” explains White. 

Jewish, Catholic, and atheist participants took part in four studies.

In the first study, Catholic and Jewish participants were told stories involving characters who were either curious or intelligent. The results showed that Jewish participants responded well to characters who were curious about science, while Catholic participants responded better to characters who were curious about religion. All participants preferred curious characters over merely intelligent ones, showing that both groups found curiosity more endearing than intelligence. But why?

The second study aimed to discover what made curiosity so endearing. Applying the same method of juxtaposing curious and intelligent characters, participants were then asked to evaluate these characters. The results showed that participants valued curiosity over knowledge due to the hard work associated with the former. 

White highlights the perception that curious people tend to put in more effort, overall. This is because people believe it does not take effort to be innately intelligent; however, it does take effort to be curious and become knowledgeable.

The significance of hard work in the positive perception of curiosity was confirmed by a third study where Jewish and Catholic participants had to choose between a curious person who was motivated, and a curious person who was lazy. All participants preferred a motivated and curious character over a curious yet lazy character. This suggests that hard work is the real driving-force behind the positivity associated with curiosity.

The fourth and final study aimed to compare how Catholics and atheists viewed curiosity depending on the topic, using the same storytelling method as the previous studies; researchers examined how both groups perceived characters that were curious about religious, immoral, or neutral matters. 

While atheists viewed religious curiosity negatively, Catholics perceived it positively. Both Catholics and atheists thought that people who were curious about neutral topics were likeable. Moreover, they also agreed that people curious about immoral topics were unlikeable. 

White attributes these observations to the notion that “people of different religious backgrounds all tend to share similar positive attitudes towards curiosity-motivated question asking and information-seeking, both about religious and scientific questions. This implies that people from different religions share an openness (or at least that they like people who express openness) to learning more about their own religion, other religion, and scientific matters. This openness and information-seeking can create more opportunities for positive dialogue between people with different world views.” 

These studies show that curiosity is perceived as positive or negative, depending on the subject of curiosity and the perspective of the observer. In general, curiosity appears to be often associated with likeability. However, curiosity without hard work is not viewed positively.

White further points out that curiosity is tied to perceived morality. “Our research also revealed that a key driver of these effects is the perception that curious people will put in more effort in general, and people who put in effort are viewed as more moral. This suggests that curiosity and effort are also important dimensions of person perception that contribute to overall evaluations of who is a good or bad person, beyond factors like prosocial or antisocial behaviour that are more obviously connected to morality,” she says.

White also acknowledges some limitations of the research: “We only studied curiosity about a few religious and scientific questions that were not very controversial (e.g. whether God can hear prayers, the size of different types of germs), so we don’t know if the effects would be the same if people expressed curiosity about more controversial topics that are actively debated between religious and scientific communities (e.g. human evolution).”

This research should inspire us to be curious, and then turn that curiosity into knowledge by putting in the effort to educate ourselves. If not for the joy of learning, then at least for the popularity that may accompany being curious.

About the Author

By Aidan O’Brien


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