December 5, 2011

I'm Curious if There's More to It

In a previous post, I arrived at the conclusion that we're ultimately motivated by survival or pleasure (S&P). Whatever we do can be traced back to those two things. Some Punk threw a chopstick at me in disagreement, though, and made the point that alternative motivations probably existed, citing "curiosity" as an example. I let this idea simmer for a few days, attempting to follow a reasonable path from that motivation back to one of the two I cited. Let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes.

Simmer until desired consistency has been reached
First things first: definitions. I had to choose a common starting point for curiosity, and I choose the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So if you disagree with their definition, take it up with them, but only after pointing it out in the comments.

Curiosity: a desire to know things; inquisitive interest.

As a practicing scientist, I can appreciate this suggestion. My group actually does basic science (as opposed to applied), which really starts by asking the question "Why does this happen?" (as opposed to "How can we use this?"). The reasons we want to answer these kinds of questions are numerous, and include: 1) we want to share the answer with others, 2) we want to apply this new knowledge to solve a problem, 3) we just like doing the work and finding the answer. We do (1) because we either enjoy teaching or want the accolades that come with being the first to express an idea. We do (2) to make the world a better place and/or earn a profit for the solution. We do (3) because we just hate not knowing.

And why do we do any of those? Because, in aggregate, it's ultimately more pleasurable to do them than to not.

Now, different people will find different degrees of pleasure in each of those "submotivations". If you hate public speaking or writing, you won't enjoy sharing your results. But you likely enjoy the contribution those results make to the field or you took pleasure in doing the work that led to the results. That is, when all of the reasons you do something are added together, no matter how far into the future those reasons exist, if the balance is pleasurable, you should take action.

In the extreme case that our hypothetically curious subject disliked learning, sharing and applying the results, then our subject is certainly doing these activities for compensation, based on the premise this compensation will bring outsized pleasure in the future relative to the discomfort suffered in the present. Or our friend is just making ends meet to survive.

Curiosity extends well outside of a lab, and so does the final conclusion. Going to try a new restaurant out tonight? My guess is you're hoping to enjoy your meal. Traveling to a foreign land to learn something about the world? I'll wager you really get a kick out of new experiences and different cultures. Curious about starting a blog and publishing your thoughts to the world? Better pick something pleasurable to write about, otherwise we won't get to read your writing for too long.

I can think of a few possibilities that seem distinct from S&P, but they're all malicious in some way. Addiction and compulsion come to mind. What motivates people to stay in abusive relationships? I have fortunately very little experience in any of these, and won't disgrace their subtle nature by commenting on them. Survival (whether real or perceived) may play a role, but I doubt anyone aware of being in those situations would suggest pleasure as a motivation.

So, I believe curiosity is itself driven by the pleasure of finding, sharing and acting on new knowledge. You might say that's simply semantics, and that I've just broadened the definition and reasoning behind some alternative motivation until I can call it pleasure. Perhaps, but I find that a powerfully uniting idea. No matter where you came from, what you look like, how you say "mom", or what you aim to achieve in life, we're all coming from the same place: sticking around and having a good time.

Any other suggestions? What's motivating you today? I'd be happy to consider them and will respond in the comments. Whatever you suggest, I think we'll discover at its source survival or pleasure.


  1. the animal instinc is the first in the diagram of action/reaction system in your brain

  2. Curiosity really does motivate me. I can accept your reasoning that pleasure or survival can motivate curiosity. It's very technical and I love technicality.

  3. Curiosity is a motivator and I wouldn't doubt it if we did evolve to be more curious. That's how we learned to manipulate our environment and benefit from it.

  4. I think Curiosity compels as to learn and improve ourselves.

  5. Without curiosity, we would probably never gotten past banging rocks together.

  6. I do things cause not doing things is boring. I am not motivated by curiosity or survival or pleasure. I do things so as not to be bored. I get no pleasure from them, I just keep myself from being bored.

  7. My motivation has been and probably always will be money.

  8. @Mark: Technically, I agree.

    @Bersercules: You present an interesting null case. Perhaps there's no net pleasure derived, but on relative terms you're choosing the more pleasurable path of doing something (as opposed to nothing).

    @Natural One: But why make money? Money is really only a construct of society that we trade for things we need for survival or pleasure. In the case you just like making money, you're still acting toward pleasure or survival.


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