OSU Links Curiosity to Workplace Problem Solving

curiosity2Here’s to the host who forgot to cook dinner because he was exploring new recipes for fried Brussels sprouts and the friend who got lost in an Internet wormhole about allium varietals after tasting garlic scapes in Portland.

Tempted to label the behavior of these fictional characters as aimless or hedonistic?

You aren’t alone. For years, curiosity researchers have dismissed this kind of pleasure-seeking curiosity—known as “diversive” curiosity—as less useful in workplace problem solving than “specific” curiosity. While diversive curiosity is motivated by the positive pleasure of learning, specific curiosity comes from a more negative force, the desire to remove the anxiety of not knowing, and has been thought to be more useful for performing high-quality work.

But Jay Well, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Business, thought that diversive curiosity could be useful in solving complex, non-routine problems—the kind that require the creative thinking many employers claim to value. In particular, Well hypothesized that diversive curiosity would be helpful early in the problem-solving process.

To test his hypothesis, Well and his two co-authors, Alisha Ness of University of Oklahoma and Jensen Mecca of Shaker Consulting Group, had 122 undergraduate college students rate their level of identification with 10 statements that predict diversive and specific curiosity tendencies. For example, statements like “I enjoy exploring new ideas” or “I find it fascinating to learn new information” measure diversive curiosity, while statements like “I work hard at problems that I feel must be solved” measure specific curiosity.

After their curiosity levels were measured, Well had the students develop a marketing plan for a retailer. Researchers then evaluated their plans and problem-solving processes; the recently published study results confirmed Well’s hypothesis.

“Diversive kind of curiosity is actually perfectly suited for this kind of problem solving,” Well said. “It allows people to spend time gathering information, which people hate to do.”

Well even recommends that employers hiring for jobs that require creative thinking and problem solving consider measuring curiosity traits in their applicants.

And job seekers? Don’t despair if you’re more a specific curiosity type. Well said specific curiosity is still more useful for completing most day-to-day tasks. And for tough problems, you can build diversive curiosity by consciously spending more time in the early stages of problem solving.

“You can fake it till you make it,” Well said. “Creativity is a trainable skill.”

By Maggie Anderson