Still depressed from the loss of her mother and in her fond remembrance, Nancy Adams travels to a secluded beach in Mexico for the much-needed solace. It’s the same beach where her mother used to bring Nancy as a kid. Known as ‘The Paradise’, with turquoise water lapping against white sands, the beach is in view of an island shaped like a pregnant woman. After thanking Carlos for driving her through the forests and helping her find this island, she decides to go for surfing right away. It’s a perfect and a beautiful morning. She takes off her shoes, takes out the surfboard, fixes the fins on the surfboard, waxes the board, puts on her wetsuit, and runs towards the turquoise waters. Dives into the waters like a dolphin, she swims and enjoys her first surf at the beach. After that she sits on the white sands and calls up her Dad with whom she has an emotionally strained conversation. Post call stress, she decides to go again for a last surf of the day before it gets dark. Boy, didn’t she realize that this supposedly beautiful day would turn into her worst nightmare as she is thrown off-board by a great white shark forcing her to eventually swim to a large piece of rock. All alone at this sequestered island, and wounded by the bite of the shark, the frightened young woman is stranded 200 yards from the shore as the deadly predator circles her in its feeding ground. What does she do? Does she bleed to death or survive? Is she able to swim back to the beach or did she get torn apart by the great white? For this you will have to watch, one of my favorite flicks, The Shallows.
Post this buildup in the movie, I was completely hooked to the film, not just coz I am a fan of Blake Lively (who plays Nancy) and I love shark movies, but it’s because of this question nagging at the back of my head constantly - ‘what happens next? What will she do now?’ This is the reason, this question as to ‘what will happen?’ makes us sit through endless hours of watching some series on Netflix, or sit through a mystery movie or read through a book irrespective how good or crappy the series, or the book or the movie might be.
But doesn’t this question nag you today also, amidst these times? What is going to happen, post lockdown, or post COVID?
In 1994, George Lowenstein, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, researched on a surprisingly simple account on situational interest and curiosity. ‘Curiosity’, he said, happens when we experience a gap in our knowledge. This gap gives us pain – when we want to know of something but don’t – it becomes an itch that we want to scratch real badly. We need to fill that gap asap, somehow. This urge or impact is similar to when the teaser of a much-awaited movie is released by the studios - recollect the day when the teaser of Avengers Endgame was launched - 289 million views in 24 hrs flat! The ‘painful’ urge to see Endgame as soon as possible, was simply unbearable. This ‘Gap Theory’ of interest, as he coined it, throws light on why some situations or events create fanatical interest or curiosity. What’s going to happen? When will this COVID-crisis end? How long will this continue? What are we going to do? What will be its impact on nations? What will the world look like?
An implication of this theory is that gaps need to be opened first before they can be closed. That’s why we see a flurry of forwarded texts on WhatsApp/social media about facts because our tendency is to share these facts – to show that we really need to see them, to highlight some specific knowledge that we don’t know or a piece of knowledge that someone else knows that we don’t know. But as of now, we are in a situation in which we can’t fathom any outcome. This leads us to uncertainty and since we don’t know what’s going to happen we fall prey to the flip sides of this curiosity gap.
BUT CURIOSITY KILLS THE CAT.
Firstly, at times this temptation, this urge, this pain to close the gap becomes so strong that it makes our minds vulnerable to any piece of information thrown at us irrespective of the actual reality behind it. We become stressed to fulfill the gap that we become gullible to the information. Sometimes despite knowing that we are incapable of, maybe, even to find out about the whole truth, coz of the hugeness of it at macro- or a global-level scale, we still are ready to believe almost any shit, just to scratch that itch. This need for closure makes us mindlessly indulge in it, ponder over it, discuss it, and even further it. In doing so we may get carried away by our emotions, losing sight of the actual issue or risk at hand. This is also the reason, that in order to fulfill this gap that has been created, all sorts of conspiracy theories begin to do the rounds as well. Was this an invention in a lab? Is this a ploy to take over the entire world? et al.
Secondly, we fall prey to becoming ignorant or consciously oblivious to the possibility of the event being a mere happenstance, in the urge to close this gap. Since one of our basic needs is certainty, we like to buttress our thoughts on the cause-and-effect of an event and necessarily attach anything to something. This is our Feeling brain, or the feeling-center of our brain, or the emotional side of our brain, whatever you might like to phrase, running amok. Randomness makes us jittery. Uncertainty makes us nervous. And this element of ‘unknown’ or not knowing something makes us stay up at night, or makes our subconscious walk to-and-fro in our mental drawing rooms, making the conscious us anxious, jittery, nervous, etc. We then direct all our energies to satiate this newly arisen curiosity urge. We ignore the possibility of an event occurring just as an occurrence. I mean – it happened, it happened!
Thirdly, a little knowledge about something tends to make us a tad bit overconfident making us mistakenly believe that we know all there is to it and there is nothing more to it. Half-knowledge about something is in fact more dangerous than no knowledge of that. A person may just have a minuscule idea on the subject and yet believe that “Bro, I know it all.” Our minds are pre-programmed to try to make sense of any disparate array of information we have to deal with. And that is why we seek patterns or mental shortcuts to ‘make sense’ of something to try to close the gap that has been opened.
Lastly, it reinforces our confirmation bias – which is a kind of a cognitive bias that involves favoring information that supports our existing beliefs (or biases). Let’s just say Mayur believes in the idea that lockdown is not good. He will seek out news, social media posts, information, and researches that reaffirm this belief of his - that lockdown is not good. When he hears stories or is bombarded with information, he will interpret it in such a way that supports his existing belief. Let’s say Mayur believes in the idea that ‘China created this in the lab and deliberately unleashed it on the world’. He and his mind will consciously be on the lookout for information or stories that will corroborate this belief. Let’s say, Mayur believes in the idea that ‘post lockdown the world is going to end’ then he will uncannily retrieve some research which will show that indeed this is an apocalyptic event. If Mayur believes that ‘Abbey nothing can happen to me’ then facebook will magically pop in front of him a video of – how we Indians have a very strong immunity that will support his existing belief.
The curiosity gap makes us vulnerable, ignorant, and overconfident. The confirmation bias is all-pervasive and has a deep impact on how we gather information and how we interpret information. This tendency is strongly interconnected with our inherent need of feeling certainty - to close the gap and make me remember an old mythical story I read which I’ll share and conclude below.
Somewhere to the north of Afghanistan, there was a small city inhabited entirely by blind people. One day news broke out that an elephant was going to pass outside the walls of the city. A committee formed by the citizens met and decided to send a team of three men for reconnaissance. They would report back to the committee about what an elephant was. The three left the town and eventually happened to stumble upon the elephant. Each of the three reached out, and felt the animal with their hands. They then headed back to the town as quickly as they could to report what each felt.
The first man reported “An elephant is a magnificent creature! It is like a vast snake, but it can stand vertically upright in the air!”
The second man was angry at hearing this “What nonsense!” he said. “This man is misleading you. I felt the elephant myself and what it resembles most is a pillar. It is rock solid and however hard you push against it you will not be able to knock it over."
The third interjected, “Both these men are liars. It’s neither a snake nor like a pillar. What it resembles is a broad pankah (or a fan). It is wide and flat and leathery material and when you shake it, it wobbles around like the sails of a dhow.”
Now, obviously all the three blind men had some measure of insight into what an elephant was because the first man had felt the elephant’s trunk, the second the leg and third the ear. All had part truth but not the whole truth. Not once did they venture into understanding the whole truth. So proud and adamant were they on the veracity of their individual truths that for the rest of their lives they refused to speak to each other and instead preferred to stick to their own half-truths.