Reconciling Novelty and Complexity Through a Rational Analysis of Curiosity

Rachit Dubey, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Curiosity is considered to be the essence of science and an integral component of cognition. What prompts curiosity in a learner? Previous theoretical accounts of curiosity remain divided—novelty-based theories propose that new and highly uncertain stimuli pique curiosity, whereas complexity-based theories propose that stimuli with an intermediate degree of uncertainty stimulate curiosity. In this article, we present a rational analysis of curiosity by considering the computational problem underlying curiosity, which allows us to model these distinct accounts of curiosity in a common framework. Our approach posits that a rational agent should explore stimuli that maximally increase the usefulness of its knowledge and that curiosity is the mechanism by which humans approximate this rational behavior. Critically, our analysis show that the causal structure of the environment can determine whether curiosity is driven by either highly uncertain or moderately uncertain stimuli. This suggests that previous theories need not be in contention but are special cases of a more general account of curiosity. Experimental results confirm our predictions and demonstrate that our theory explains a wide range of findings about human curiosity, including its subjectivity and malleability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)455-476
Number of pages22
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • Computational model
  • Curiosity
  • Exploration
  • Rational analysis


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