Imagine that you are booking a vacation cruise online, and you’re deciding between a modest ocean-view cabin and a luxurious suite with a private balcony. In the midst of this decision, your cell phone rings, and a friend on the other end of the line exclaims, “You’ll never believe what happened to me today!” You are intrigued, but before you can learn the answer, the call cuts out, and you are unable to reconnect. You are understandably disappointed about the dropped call and eager to hear the news. As you wait for your friend to call back, you turn to finalize your cruise decision. What you may not realize is that the call may incline you toward the luxury option. Curiosity, it seems, is linked to indulgence.
We know curiosity is a motivating force in our daily lives. It drives us to check our phones, binge-watch new shows on Netflix, catch up on celebrity gossip and subscribe to mystery-box deliveries from our favorite retailers. In many ways, this drive can be a good thing. Curiosity propels discovery and promotes learning, is associated with lower mortality rates and healthy cognitive aging and brings us pleasure. When we are curious about something and expect to get an answer, our brain responds as if we are about to receive a reward.
But what happens when life leaves you hanging—when you don’t hear the punchline to a joke, or a Netflix series ends on a cliffhanger, or your cell phone call drops before you get the critical news? Work by marketing researchers Kyra Wiggin, Martin Reimann and Shailendra Jain suggests the hunger for knowledge, when left unsatisfied, creates a state of cognitive deprivation that leaves us with a craving. If we can’t satisfy that craving with information, we turn to other forms of reward, such as rich food or indulgent spending.
In a series of behavioral and neuroimaging studies, Wiggin and her colleagues demonstrated the appetite for knowledge can create a more general appetite for gratifying rewards. Across these studies, half of all participants had their curiosity triggered and then left unsatisfied. The other half of them either never had their curiosity piqued or had it satisfied in some way. Later, all participants were given a chance to indulge or show restraint in an unrelated task. Those whose curiosity was left unsatisfied were more likely to splurge.
In one study, for example, participants engaged in a writing exercise designed to elicit strong or weak feelings of curiosity. In the high-curiosity condition, participants read a definition of curiosity, listed five things that made them feel curious—and for which their curiosity had not been satisfied—and then wrote a paragraph about one of them with the intent of re-creating those feelings. Participants in the low-curiosity condition listed things they were no longer curious about. Both groups then rated their curiosity level and their desire for rewards. Finally, they were asked to select from different hypothetical vacation options, of which the least expensive cost $1,200 and the most expensive cost $2,400.
The curiosity manipulation worked: participants in the high-curiosity condition reported significantly stronger feelings of curiosity than those in the low-curiosity condition. Participants in the high-curiosity condition also reported that they had a stronger desire for rewards. That desire for rewards manifested itself when participants selected their vacation options: those in the high-curiosity condition were willing to spend nearly $100 more on their hypothetical holiday than those in the low-curiosity condition. In a similar study, participants were offered a hypothetical choice between a luxury gym membership (with a dipping pool, Scandinavian wood sauna and rain shower) or a regular gym membership that cost $35 less per month. Those in the high-curiosity condition were far more likely than those in the low-curiosity one to opt for the luxury gym. In similar studies by a different research team, participants in a high state of curiosity (induced by unsolved riddles) were more likely to choose a high-fat, highly-caloric menu item (beer battered fish and chips) over a healthy, low-calorie option (mixed salad) in a mock restaurant scenario.
The drive to indulge when curious manifests in real choices, as well as hypothetical ones. In two additional studies, Wiggin and her colleagues manipulated curiosity by showing participants blurry images and asking them to guess what the pictures depicted. Only participants in the low-curiosity condition were then shown the unblurred images; those in the high-curiosity condition were left to wonder about them. Later, all participants were invited to sample chocolate candies. Those in the high-curiosity condition ate 50 percent more candy on average than those in the low-curiosity one.
Wiggin and her colleagues posit that the indulgent behavior observed across their studies results from the desire for reward that is elicited by unsated curiosity. Neuroimaging data from their research align with this suggestion. Relative to those in a low-curiosity condition, participants in a high-curiosity condition showed greater activation in the insula, an area of the brain associated with the desire for reward. Analyses from behavioral studies also suggest that the tendency to splurge is mediated by participants’ reported desire for rewards.
The finding that curiosity tempts indulgence should make buyers beware. Curiosity triggers abound in our everyday lives—we often have to wait to read a text message, finish a mystery novel or solve a puzzle. In addition, savvy businesses intentionally build some mystery in their marketing. Companies such as Groupon, JetBlue Airways and Banana Republic offer “secret” promotional deals and mystery products, and other stores distribute coupons but only reveal the amount of the discount at the time of purchase. The findings by Wiggin and her colleagues might encourage businesses to take the practice one step further—for example, by adding some fun trivia at the entrance to a store, with answers provided on your receipt as you leave. Whether we enter a store in a state of curiosity or our curiosity is piqued by marketing ploys, the result may be the same: we will be tempted to select more lavish items.
Given the plethora of ways that curiosity might be elicited, are we doomed to indulge? Thankfully for our wallets and waistlines, the answer is no. Wiggin and her colleagues found that spending money and indulging in delicious candy are not the only ways to satisfy the craving for reward. In one study, they triggered participants’ curiosity using a blurred imaged task and then had those participants watch a highly pleasurable, satisfying movie trailer (for Ocean’s Eleven) or a stark one (for Schindler’s List). All participants experienced lingering curiosity from the blurred image task, but those who watched the pleasurable film clip resisted indulging in candy. Because their desire for reward was satisfied by the trailer, they ate the same amount of candy as participants in a low-curiosity condition. These findings suggest that buyers can come prepared. The next time you are shopping, it may be wise to bring along a small indulgence (a short, fun video on your phone or a small piece of chocolate) to avoid a big splurge.