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Understanding the evolutionary basis, though, for curiosity as a human universal imporantly invites everyone to “Stay Curious” is the two-word request that I leave on the screen when I’m done teaching my semester-long take on Organizational Behavior, a core course in any Business School curriculum.

Curiosity has gotten something of a close-up in the past year with prominent publications like Harvard Business Review pushing several stories that celebrate it.  One title that gets students’ attention is Warren Berger’s “Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite” (referring to Chief-level positions such as Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, …).

The recent spotlight on curiosity is great but it does typically leave out questions such as “if,” “why,” and “how” people are (or might be) differentially curious.

For my part, I focus on the “why” and apply an evolutionary perspective to propose that we (humans) are instinctively or naturally inclined to be curious and that various environmental factors are responsible for blinkering or dampening levels of curiosity that are otherwise evolved.

I rest my argument conceptually on the hat of “neoteny” – the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood – and show the students this image from Ontogeny and Phylogeny. I show them the image after walking through a brief lesson on human evolution that highlights (a) the existence of a common ancestral species for humans and chimpanzees and (b) the massive amount of time that has elapsed since that point.

While I generally aim for my class to move fast with a good measure of urgency, the image of a juvenile and adult chimpanzee is likely the one slide each semester when I take the highest number of breaths while asking the students to consider what they see.

Earlier in the course, there are frequent references to evolutionary thinking – in fact, several articles on the syllabus apply evolutionary psychology to workplace dynamics [1-6] – but it’s not until the capstone section that I show the conventional species-lineage chart and make the evolutionary case for staying curious. 

For my part, I focus on the “why” and apply an evolutionary perspective to propose that we (humans) are instinctively or naturally inclined to be curious — and that various environmental factors are responsible for blinkering or dampening levels of curiosity that are otherwise evolved.

Outside of business schools, evolutionists including Peter Gray have made strong cases that celebrate, comparably, the evolutionary bases for why play is universal – and instinctual – across humans.  Curiosity isn’t the only driver of play, but it’s worthwhile to recognize that being curious is playful.

Business School students understandably and sensibly tend to keep a close and persistent focus on their career development.  For example, it’s clear that daily decisions on whether to attend events often need to meet the measure of whether it is likely to boost chances for any kind of internship or full-time job of interest.

Consequently, when “HBR” advises them that curiosity will help them become “destined” for the C-Suite, it gets attention.

Understanding the evolutionary basis, though, for curiosity as a human universal importantly invites everyone to appreciate that they can individually start being more curious, more innovative, or more entrepreneurial.

On a practical class-to-class level, instructors can incorporate this approach to knowledge by leaving textbooks on the side and working with original research articles where “limitations and future directions” are a staple component that invite students – and all of us – to think more about what we know and what we should prioritize for future investigations.

In this view of life, then, when curiosity isn’t only expected from hipsters, hippies, or members of any other subculture, both classrooms – and the enterprises that are eventually informed by Business Schools – have great potential for broad advancement.

Hey, we want to get to know you! Join the TVOL Business Action Group and join our team of entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers in transforming the business world through an evolutionary perspective.

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References
1.  Nicholson, N. (2008). Evolutionary psychology, organizational culture, and the family firm. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 22, 73-84.
2.  Kniffin, K. M., et al.  (2017). The Sound of Cooperation: Musical influences on cooperative behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38, 372-390.
3.  Kniffin, K. M., et al. (2015). Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters. Human Performance, 28, 281-306.
4.  Kniffin, K. M., et al. (2014). Beauty is in the In-Group of the Beholded: Intergroup differences in the perceived attractiveness of leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 1143-1153.
5.  Kniffin, K. M., and Wilson, D. S. (2010). Evolutionary Perspectives on Workplace Gossip: How and Why Gossip Can Be Good. Group & Organization Management, 35, 150-176.
6.  Kniffin, K. M. (2009). Evolutionary Perspectives on Salary Dispersion within Firms. Journal of Bioeconomics, 11, 23-42.

Published On: March 15, 2018

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin, This View of Life’s Sports Editor, is an applied behavioral scientist at Cornell University who teaches and researches the mechanisms that facilitate cooperation within groups.  He has contributed research papers to outlets including Evolution & Human Behavior, Human Nature, and Evolutionary Psychological Science and his work has been covered by popular media including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and The Atlantic.  Kniffin has conducted research in diverse field settings, including firehouses, gyms, and new automobile dealerships.  He is active on Twitter @KevinKniffin.

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