Is your research driven by curiosity or perplexity?

By Luke Perry, July 2018

The 2018 QRCA AQR Qualitative conference in Valencia This year’s excellent conference in Valencia was about the theme of curiosity and it certainly lived up to it with an array of the best qualitative thinking from the UK, US and elsewhere. It was an inescapable conclusion, curiosity was at the heart of all good research and the primary impulse of every good researcher. Without it could we ever discover anything really worth knowing? Curiosity was the key that opened our minds to fresh insights and whole new worlds of creative possibilities. The opening talk was a genuinely inspiring exploration of the concept of curiosity, how it had spurred the greatest minds, as well as a few business leaders, onto great things. If we did not have this thirst to find out and explore then maybe deep down we were not real researchers. Curiosity or perplexity? But a strange thing about the conference was that underneath it all there was perhaps another impulse at work. Even when the opening speaker had finished leaving us all in hyper curious mode, questions were bubbling up from the challenging times we are living through. Were liberals more curious than conservatives? Were liberals more curious because they were more open, and perhaps on average, more educated, than those who had voted for the likes of Trump or Brexit? Or was the truth of it that incurious liberals existed as well? Indeed, some of the later papers presented were focused on what was still clearly regarded as the vexing topic of Brexit. Brexit and Trump have been, and continue to be, deeply shocking for many, particularly generally liberal, university educated, qualies, who by and large didn’t vote for either. Since they have happened an awful lot of research has flowed forth, from government, think tanks, even researchers self-funding their own projects. In Valencia two very well-known industry figures from the UK, and self-declared Remainers, displayed another worthy attempt to explain what had gone wrong, the (real) meaning of Brexit, and how much Leave voters must be regretting their decision. It was at these moments that you could sense that perplexity, an inability to understand, rather than curiosity, was the real force behind such research. As researchers curiosity may inspire us to get out of bed in the morning, but it is perplexity that keeps us awake at night. Just to go all old school for a moment, perplexity is perhaps the dark Jungian shadow of curiosity. Curiosity inspires and excites, perplexity plagues and infuriates, but sometimes we need the discomfort of perplexity to be able to push off, if we are to get to the bottom of the mysteries that trouble us the most. Where does perplexity come from?   So let’s try and unpack perplexity for a moment. Perplexity, or ‘being stumped’, is a hair trigger for all sorts of questions, often lightening quick and fired in anger. ‘What just happened?’ ‘How could this happen?’ ‘What went wrong?’ ‘How could they have been so stupid?’ etc. These questions have often framed many of the papers, projects, documentaries, reports, indeed much of the cultural discourse that has emanated from the great ‘soul searching’ around Brexit, often with the implicit agenda of never letting such a ‘disaster’ happen again. But whatever the proximal question of perplexity, the ultimate desperation to know boils down to one essential question, ‘How could my assumptions have been wrong?’ In this sense I would suggest perplexity comes from a place of arrogance, and the accompanying anger is often a deep feeling of shock, tinged with humiliation, when our complacency has been revealed, through in this case of course, the ‘self-evident stupidity’ of others. We are still under the spell of that arrogance when we refuse to seriously contemplate viewpoints that are different to our own, and judgementally insist that those that see it differently are ‘just plain wrong’, or pathologize ‘them’, the people that voted for Brexit or Trump, as ‘just bigots’ or ‘the deplorables’. If we wanted further elaboration of this child of arrogance then we might look to confirmation bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms our beliefs. Again, underneath confirmation bias we think we know the answer, and we will only notice things that conform to what we think is, or should be, and we ignore what goes against it. Maybe in the end liberals aren’t quite as curious and open as they think they are. A more compassionate take on confirmation bias is that it’s a fairly natural trait in a lot of people. We typically don’t want to be wrong, and we don’t want to not know, not knowing is uncomfortable. The humility of curiosity Perhaps we can temper this tendency by being more open to things we don’t understand, always leaving some room for other perspectives to be possible, and more receptive to new information. Some have called this openness ‘beginners mind’, just to be open to the idea that we don’t know everything, that we can learn more, and that things we may already believe, we can change our minds about. Adopting that openness as we go through the world and hear different things can be a real benefit. But to enable this kind of openness and curiosity the character trait we need to cultivate is humility, an awareness that we don’t know all the answers, and that we need to continually question and challenge our own assumptions, and be genuinely open to alternative perspectives. If perplexity comes from a place of arrogance then curiosity comes from a place of humility, a trait that was perhaps neglected in the opening presentation at Valencia. Embracing the humility of curiosity may help us avoid the myopia that stems from arrogance and complacency, whether you are David Cameron gambling on ‘no one in their right mind’ voting the ‘wrong’ way, or Kodak ignoring the digital revolution, the humility of curiosity may save your skin next time round. “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted” Bertrand Russell