On June 9th, 2016 we learned about

Curiosity can make pointless or painful experiences seem more enticing

My first grader is about to start her summer break, which will invariably lead to a number of late afternoon declarations her horrible, insurmountable boredom, at least if her friends aren’t around. While most parents would reflexively suggest things like reading a book or going outside, I’m wondering if I should instead present the option mild electric shocks. It may not sound like as much fun as 30 minutes of Minecraft, if presented in the right way it would likely hold more allure than you might think.

Shocks over solitude

Our brains are wired for stimulation, and have been proven to prefer some kind stimulation, even if it’s negative, over nothing at all. Volunteers who at first said that they would pay money to avoid mild electric shocks ended up repeatedly zapping themselves when faced with the monotony of spending 15 minutes alone. This short amount of time was probably a battle against boredom, but as social animals we have preferences against being alone too long as well. These instincts of course aren’t there to make us miserable, but for that discomfort to drive us to stay in the safety of our group.

Pen puzzles worth the pain

It turns out that we don’t even need to be all that bored to risk unpleasant experiences though. A separate study asked volunteers to sit, one at a time, in a waiting room with nothing but some marked pens on a table. They were free to play with the “clicky-clicky” mechanisms in the pens, at which point they’d discover that pens with red dots would shock them, but green ones wouldn’t. This didn’t stop people from clicking pens, but it didn’t hold volunteers’ interest as much as an alternate scenario in a different room. In that case, a test subject was left with nothing but yellow pens, some of which would deliver a shock, and some which wouldn’t. These pens were clicked the most, indicating that the discovery of the outcome was a more important motivator than the sensation of being shocked.

To be sure that people weren’t just clicking the yellow pens more to try and get a good, thorough sample of potential pain, a third scenario left people with 10 red, 10 green and 10 yellow pens. To learn the pattern, a person would only need to try out a couple of each color, and then have an easy time avoiding future shocks. But once again, the risk of an unpleasant shock was the most attractive option, being clicked 42 percent of the time, versus 14 percent for the red or green pens.

Obviously, being curious can be very helpful in helping us discover positive things in our life, from new food sources to less survival-oriented things like new music. It just so happens that this kind of curiosity, dubbed the Pandora effect by the authors of the pen study, is powerful even when nobody thinks it will lead to any kind of gain beyond new knowledge. The real test will come in a few weeks, when we find out if I can get my first grader to feel curious enough about cleaning her room to see if housekeeping can count as a cure for boredom.

Source: Why People Try Repulsive Things by Cindi May, Scientific American

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