The “Pandora effect” has its origin in an ancient Greek myth. Legend has it that the gods set a trap for Epimetheus to punish his brother, the Titan Prometheus, who had stolen their fire to give it to men.
Epimetheus, dazzled by Pandora’s grace and beauty, ignored the promise he had made to her brother Prometheus never to accept a gift from the gods and took her as her life partner. Pandora was carrying a “poisoned gift,” a box given to her by Zeus that she was not to open under any circumstances.
However, curiosity won the battle and one day, while Epimetheus was sleeping, Pandora opened the box. When she lifted the lid, all the misfortunes and evils that could affect man escaped and spread throughout the world, from diseases and suffering to wars and famine or feelings such as envy and anger.
We still retain the curiosity that motivated Pandora to open that box and, just like it happened to her, it also plays tricks on us.
Curiosity motivates us more than security
Curiosity is positive. Curiosity is what leads us to continue exploring and is at the base of scientific progress. Curiosity is what takes us out of our comfort zone and many times also pushes us to exceed our own limits. Curiosity allows us to continue learning and discover wonderful things. However, it can also play tricks on us.
For example, in English the word rubbernecking is used to refer to the tendency to stare at car accidents for too long when passing by. A very interesting study sponsored by the UK government on motorway accidents attributed 29% of them to drivers getting stuck going the other way because they were staring at the accident that had happened on the nearby road. Finally, the UK Highways Agency reduced accidents by erecting giant barriers at accident sites to prevent other drivers from being distracted.
The problem is that we simply have a hard time overcoming curiosity. In a recent study conducted at the University of Chicago, these researchers found that the Pandora effect is still present: We are curious, even if we know the outcome will be negative.
The researchers gave the volunteers a box containing prank pens that gave a slightly painful but harmless electric shock when the button on top was activated. One group was given pens with a red sticker indicating they would receive an electric shock and a green sticker indicating they were safe. Another group was given a box of pens with a yellow sticker signifying the outcome would be uncertain; that is, it was not possible to know if that pen would discharge.
Next, the researchers told the participants they could take a look at the pens while they waited for the study to begin. The catch was that the experiment had already started and the researchers were actually observing their behavior. Thus they found that, against all logic, those who had the pens with the yellow sticker (uncertain result) were five times more likely to press the button and receive a painful shock than those who were in the group with the sure results (red/green). Curiosity was simply stronger than common sense.
And it wasn’t just them. In a second similar experiment, the researchers gave some participants two or three buttons that they could press at any time. In the first case, people had a button that made either a neutral sound (water being poured into a glass) or a negative sound (chalk screeching on a blackboard). The other group had both buttons plus a third option with a 50/50 chance of playing the neutral or negative sound.
If you’ve ever heard chalk screeching on a blackboard, you’ll probably do everything to avoid it, as it’s one of the most unpleasant sounds. And yet, when that mystery button was available, it generated such curiosity that people clicked it 30% more times than the sure-result buttons.
How to counteract the Pandora effect?
We are victims of the Pandora effect because we do not value the emotional consequences of our actions. That is, we are so determined to satisfy our curiosity that we do not consider the negative result that we could obtain.
In practice, it is as if curiosity produced a full-fledged emotional hijacking, preventing us from reflecting on the consequences of our actions. We become so obsessed with figuring out what’s going on that our perspective narrows and we can’t see beyond curiosity. It is as if that desire occupied almost everything in our minds, relegating rationality to the background.
The good news is that we are not completely at the mercy of the Pandora effect. There are different strategies to contain curiosity. For example, we can think about the consequences of our decisions, especially the negative or damaging ones. This cost-benefit analysis technique will help us regain control and act more sensibly.
Another strategy to mitigate curiosity is to focus on the negative emotions we will experience if we make a certain decision and things go wrong. In this case, we are not fighting the Pandora effect with reason but with emotion itself. Emotions like disgust or fear are deeply aversive, so they are likely to keep our curiosity at bay.
Doward, J. & Slater, C. (2009) Giant screens at crash sites to end ‘rubbernecking’ danger. In: The Guardian.
Hsee, C. K. & Ruan, B. (2016) The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity. Psychological Science; 27(5): 659-666.