Why the Need for Cognition is a Survival Skill

The internet is the single greatest collection of human knowledge in history, but with the answer to nearly any question easily accessible, what purpose does the need for cognition serve in the modern world?


| October 2014



Girl with magnifying glass

A person's curiosity is more state than trait, and it follows that we can arrange our lives to stoke our curiosity or quash it.

Photo by Fotolia/Sergey Nivens

The web is easier to search than ever, but the fact that it meets our desires so efficiently doesn’t mean it is stoking our desire to learn more. Curiosity, Ian Leslie explains in Curious (Basic Books, 2014) is sustained by unanswered questions, and is increasingly difficult to harness in our wired world. People with a high need for cognition—curious people—are the drivers of innovation, but when the answers are available with the click of a mouse, habits of patience and focused application atrophy. The following excerpt on the role of curiosity in contemporary culture is from the introduction, “The Fourth Drive.”

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it 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.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind—especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state—was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

Great Prosperity Leads to the Great Stagnation

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull. With the important exception of the Internet, the innovations that catapulted Western societies ahead of the global pack are thin on the ground, while the rapid growth of Asian and South American economies has not yet been accompanied by a comparable run of indigenous innovation. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has termed the current period the Great Stagnation.

Cowen says that the rich world is struggling to cope with the consequences of its own success; it now finds it much harder to raise the educational levels of its populaces. Rather than just getting more people to school and university, therefore, the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question, and create. Meanwhile, the leaders of Asian societies, such as those of China and Singapore, are wondering how to instill a culture of inquiry and critical thinking into their educational systems, aware that people who defer too much to the authority of their elders’ ideas are less likely to transcend them. The world is in need of more curious learners.