Do you sometimes find yourself procrastinating, backing yourself into a tight corner of time pressure, so that you think or feel that you don’t really have a choice of which way to proceed? Are you framing your next steps as beyond your control, or as pre-determined – even by your own past choices? And might that be curbing your curiosity and creative exploration?
When is a choice yours, and when does it feel like yours? And why does it matter?
Choosing versus not choosing: A scenario
Suppose that you’ve been invited to take part in a research study. The study will take place entirely online and in it you will be asked to respond to a few brief personality questionnaires, to watch a video of a classic TED talk, and to answer some questions about how you felt about the video. Suppose, too, that you are told that you will be able to choose which one of three videos you’d like to watch, and beforehand are given the opportunity to read a short description of each of the videos. The three videos are “The new bionics that let us run, climb and dance,” “The power of vulnerability,” and “The history of our world in 18 minutes.”
Now suppose that one of your friends (say “Marcie”) also has been invited to take part in a research study. The study seems to be the same one you’ve been asked to participate in, except that, rather than being given a choice of which one of the three videos she’d like to watch, Marcie is simply assigned to watch one of them, and before she watches it, she is given a short description of that video to read.
Afterwards, you and Marcie are asked some questions about the topic of the video you had just watched, for example, “Finding out more about the topic would be an opportunity to grow and learn,” and “I would enjoy learning about aspects of the topic that are unfamiliar to me.” You are also asked to indicate your level of interest in the video, and the extent to which you plan to seek out more information on the topic.
Let’s imagine, too, that both you and Marcie watched the same video, say, “The power of vulnerability.” Would it have made a difference that you were able to choose which video you watched? What about Marcie, who wasn’t given any options, but was simply assigned to watch that video? How might you feel differently from Marcie about the topic of the video, and why?
In a recent study, two researchers in Australia teamed up to ask – and empirically examine – these very questions. They hypothesized that the participants given a choice would show greater curiosity. In a sample of 154 mature-aged university students (average age of 35), this is precisely what they found. Compared with participants given no choice, participants who were given a choice regarding which of the videos they watched were more curious about the topic of the video, expressed greater interest in the topic, and were more likely to plan to obtain more information about the topic. These effects of choice versus no choice on exploratory curiosity and interest were found even when comparing participants who had watched the same video.
Why would this be?
Circumstances in our environment (e.g., the imminence of project deadlines) can either promote, or undermine, a sense of our own autonomy. When we feel autonomous, we fully endorse our actions with our whole self, and feel that we are responsible for our action. The sense of being autonomous can be contrasted with a feeling of being controlled.
Being provided the opportunity to choose is strongly associated with an increased sense of autonomy, and has been found to enhance intrinsic motivation. For example, in a classic study, undergraduate participants were either assigned three specific puzzles to work on, or were allowed to select which three puzzles, out of a larger set of six, they preferred to work on. Those in the no-choice group were given a designated amount of time for each puzzle, but those in the choice-group were allowed to indicate the amount of time they wished to allot to working on each one. When later given the opportunity to continue working on other (matched) puzzles, participants in the choice-group continued to problem-solve for longer. The choice-group participants were also more willing to return to the lab to do additional puzzle solving than were participants who had been given less control over their behavior.
Being given the opportunity to make a choice, even when the choice is small or minor, appears to benefit learning, and to be itself rewarding. Indeed, there is evidence for increased activity in reward-related processing brain regions of the reward network after free choice.
It’s true that choice may not be welcome under all circumstances. Sometimes there can be just too many options so that we can experience “choice overload,” especially if, for example, the choices are complex so it can be too difficult to work through them all, or we’re really not sure of what we want. Choice, whether autonomous or controlled, always occurs within a broader context and can sometimes have paradoxical or detrimental effects. Yet the ability to make real choices is fundamental to our sense of agency and autonomy – and agency and autonomy are the bedrock for creative exploration of all kinds.
To think about
- Are you giving yourself enough opportunity for the sorts of real choices that could prove to be curiosity-boosting?
- Could you change how you’re thinking about one of your creative or problem-solving choices to be more fully autonomous and experience more agency?
- Could giving yourself (and others) freedom to make even minor, seemingly inconsequential, choices cumulatively catch and catalyze your curiosity?
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Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: The origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 457–463.
Madan, S., Nanakdewa, K., Savani, K., & Markus, H. R. (2019). The paradoxical consequences of choice: Often good for the individual, perhaps less so for society? Current Directions in Psychological Science, published online Dec. 12, 2019.
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