The Curiosity-Deficit Hypothesis
Although understanding may play a small part, it is not enough on its own to explain the acceptance gap between the scientific community and lay publics. In my talk I will provide examples from research that demonstrate that the opposite can be true. That is, people seem to use their knowledge to better motivate and defend their preexisting viewpoints, leading more knowledgeable individuals to be even more polarized than the less knowledgeable ones. Indeed, no matter how “knowledge” has been measured—be it general factual science knowledge, topic specific science knowledge, numerical ability, or critical thinking—we find that as knowledge increases, so does the divide between different publics.
Interestingly, however, we found one factor relevant to thinking and learning that does not seem to divide publics: curiosity. Although acceptance gaps are still present between, for example, republicans and democrats on climate change, and religious and non-religious individuals on evolution, we do not see the same polarization when we look at the effects of curiosity and prior viewpoints on acceptance of these issues. I will describe two studies in which my colleagues and I show not only that these polarization effects related to knowledge are not present when looking at curiosity, but that inspiring curiosity may actually protect against politically-motivated reasoning.
We theorize that people use information to achieve different ends, depending on context. In some cases, that means satisfying personal curiosity, in others it means defining one’s self as a member of certain cultural, religious, or political groups. Indeed, some controversial topics may automatically instigate people to use new information for the latter, but further research should continue to explore how we might, instead, communicate or frame scientific information in ways that inspire curiosity.