Curiosity is the basis of growth

The president of “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Positiv-Psychologische Forschung” [German Association for Positive-Psychological Research] believes curiosity drives us to combine our existing knowledge in novel ways.


Prof. Dr. Michaela Brohm-Badry is Professor for Empirical Research on Teaching and Learning, and dean of the Department of Education, Philosophy, and Psychology at Trier University. She is the president of “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Positiv-Psychologische Forschung” [German Association for Positive-Psychological Research] (DGPPF) and a columnist for WirtschaftsWoche.

Her work deals with the topic of curiosity in particular, with a focus on the perspective of motivation: What drives people?


What role has curiosity played in your life?
Curiosity often inspired me and lead me into new fields of research. In my dissertation I worked intensively on a late romantic composer. She was driven by an immense amount of curiosity to create an impressive body of compositions. After that, my research questions became more general: Which strengths, resources, and potentials do people need to be this motivated and this successful?


How did you research this question?
At Münster University, I dealt with the empirical basis of motivational research. After the call to a chair for educational research at Trier University, we were among the first to conduct large-scale quantitative surveys of children and youth, in order to explore individual elements of motivation in the context of learning processes.


What did you find out about the topic of curiosity from this research?
In learning theory, curiosity is the basis of growth. In general, it is one of the strongest forces for acquiring something new: mentally, emotionally, and socially. Our comprehensive study found a large negative correlation between compression of time and performance motivation. The less time you take to follow your curiosity, the less you are motivated to perform. It is thus essential for curiosity to flourish. Following the impulses of curiosity, people assemble a greater amount of knowledge, work with more self-reflection, and thus increase their chances of being truly innovative. This is because innovation is always predicated on already existing knowledge. Curiosity drives us to re-combine existing knowledge in novel ways. We could show that curiosity not only increases motivation for innovation, but the general ability to perform also significantly increases.


Applying these research results to a work context, what do you believe to be the most important aspects?
An organisational culture fostering curiosity primarily has to achieve two objectives.

First: A culture of well-being has to be created. This is related to the strategically important “broaden and build theory“ in the study of emotion: Only if we feel well, can we open up and create new resources. This includes, for example, a positive culture of failure, as being afraid of failure makes being truly curious impossible. A fear-infested culture of mistrust leads people to isolate themselves from new impulses and incentives. A negative spiral of innovation develops. The management level has to *live* a culture of recognition, respect, and well-being themselves. Just a few nice words on paper are not enough.


Secondly: There has to be enough time to follow the impulses of curiosity. Performance is more than work divided by time. Performance transcends the current situation and harbours the energy, the future, and the spirit of an organisation. Seen this way, innovative performance is a humanist paradigm: Work times well-being, divided by time.


How do enterprises react to you delivering this message as a keynote speaker?
Organisations often have a hard time accepting that a strong performance is based on well-being. Often profitability is given as a counter-argument. However, this is simply short-term thinking, for in the long run, allowing room for well-being and thus for curiosity is much more profitable. For example, it leads to significantly less personnel turnover, employee engagement increases, there is less absence due to illnesses, and the costs for transferring knowledge decrease. This enables innovation and transformation.

As part of its 2016 curiosity study, the science and technology company Merck developed four dimensions of curiosity: tolerance for stress, openness, thirst for knowledge, and creativity. How do you assess the aspect of tolerance for stress in relation to the other three dimensions of curiosity: Openness for other ideas, thirst for knowledge, and creativity in problem solving?
Stress can be a motivator. However, an excess of stress inhibits curiosity. And the inner urge to understand the world is a much stronger motivator than pressure from the outside: People understanding something new often report a dopamine rush. A feeling of happiness beyond words! Paradoxically this requires a lot of time: People have to be able to follow the first impulses of their curiosity. They then get into a kind of ‘catch mode’: Following their inspiration, they follow their ideas. Thus, organisations truly wanting to be innovative need a culture of well-being and abundant spare time.

Read this interview in German

This interview is part of the Merck Curiosity Initiative.
The interview was conducted by Dr. Sybe Izaak Rispens