Originally published by Don Peppers on LinkedIn: Curiosity is an Act of Rebellion

In a previous post I suggested that people should consider it a moral obligation to be curious about things. Not being curious is not only intellectually lazy, but it shows a willful contempt for the facts. If you don't want to know the truth about something, then how moral can you claim to be?

Curiosity, however, is also an act of rebellion, and as such it requires moral courage.

Innovation cannot occur in any field without curiosity, and without innovation your company might as well close its doors now. But being curious about things represents nothing less than a rejection of whatever inadequate explanation existed before, and a search for a better one. By its very nature, curiosity demonstrates independence of mind. As Ian Leslie suggests in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It,

"Curiosity...assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested."

Being curious, in other words, means being skeptical of the explanations and ideas propounded by others, including higher-ups, whether these higher-ups are political or religious leaders, or your own boss at work. Rebellion undermines the social order, but putting a certain amount of stress on the social order isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. Whenever curiosity is welcomed in a society or an organization, open-mindedness tends to prevail. Any company that welcomes curiosity will be tolerant of dissent and open to change, and its employees are likely to have a strong distrust of authority or dogmatism of any kind.

But if having curiosity constitutes an act of rebellion, then lacking curiosity is an act of submission. When we are incurious, we simply accept others' explanations and ideas without any independent confirmation or understanding of them. Authoritarian, paternalistic, and traditionalist cultures are strengthened when curiosity is contained or suppressed, but undermined when curiosity is unleashed. A submissive, incurious populace is less likely to depose the existing elites.

History bears this out, because religious and governmental institutions, almost universally, have actively worked to suppress individual curiosity. When rulers castigate people for arguing that planets revolve around the Sun, or that human beings evolved over millions of years, they are working hard to stamp out curiosity. Governments, religions, and social organizations of all types have a vested interest in enforcing whatever set of beliefs favor themselves, whether these beliefs involve the divine right of kings, the sacredness of jihad, the ultimate truth of the Marxist dialect, or the right to bear arms.

Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable result of how social forces operate. The sharing of common beliefs - scientifically based or not - is an important glue that holds people together. Being curious may constitute an act of rebellion, but by definition rebellion itself is anti-social.

And lest you think this is all just cultural history, consider for a minute the many social pressures that work to suppress objective, scientific explanations of the truth, even today, on all sides of the political spectrum. Does homosexuality have a genetic cause? Does global warming have benefits as well as disadvantages? Is immigration good or bad for employment and the economy?

The problem isn't just that ruling elites try to suppress curiosity within the societies they rule, but that any group of people will exert social pressure on its members to conform to the beliefs and assumptions of the other members.

And while curiosity may be human nature, so is the desire to belong, socially. Groups of individuals sharing some common goal or belief can easily come to entirely irrational or even self-destructive conclusions, as each member reinforces and magnifies the similar beliefs held by others. This is how an uncontrolled mob can end up looting a town or lynching a victim - undertaking an action that none of the group's members, individually, would likely have been willing to undertake outside of the mob.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but we don't have to look much further than the political discussion surrounding the current presidential election to see that curiosity itself is being suppressed by each side. No matter who you plan to vote for at this stage, it takes courage to question your own side's point of view, doesn't it?

So be curious. Be rebellious. Don't go along with the crowd, just because it's the crowd.

Published on: Sep 21, 2016