Jeremy Smith Feb 19, 2019 11:28:24 AM 25 min read

5 Things You Need to Know about the Psychology of Curiosity and Conversion Optimization

Here’s one thing you don’t hear much about in conversion optimization —

The Psychology of Curiosity.

It’s too bad, really. Curiosity is one of those … well, curious things about conversion optimization that has far more power than most people realize.

While many CROs spend their time telling you that your buttons need to be bigger, I want to tackle the big, bad, hairy monsters of conversion optimization. These are the things that matter in major ways.

If you’re curious about the psychology of curiosity, specifically how it can give you more conversion bang for your psychological buck, this is the article that you’ve been waiting for.

1. Curiosity is an emotion.

Scientists have long been mystified by curiosity. Until the advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), it was impossible to identify where, how, and why curiosity arose in the human brain.

One fact was obvious — curiosity, wherever it came from, was strong. Very strong. Strong like other things. Like emotions.

As fMRI evolved to its current status, scientists realized what they had suspected all along. Curiosity is an emotion. One of the most important neurological structures during the event of curiosity is the amygdala.

of curiosity is the amygdala

(Image source)

The amygdala is considered the source of some of the most primal human emotions, including fear. Thus, curiosity is a deep-seated and fundamental human emotion.

Some scientists, in fact, call curiosity “the go-to emotion,” because it is so pervasive and powerful.

Conversion Takeaways

Okay, so what? I mean, who gives a flipping care whether curiosity is an emotion or not.

who cares

(Image source)

I care.

I care, I care a lot

(Image source)

Why? Because emotions are a powerful driver of conversions.

I have argued elsewhere regarding the titanic-sized impact of emotions on conversion optimization. Without emotion, humans cannot make decisions. An individual’s emotional qualities are far more influential than the so-called “analytical process” by which some people purport to make decisions.

The human decision-making process involves emotions and intelligence. And guess which one clocks in at a heavier weight bracket.

human decision making process involves emotions and intelligence

(Image source)

According to the neuroscience of decision-making, humans are wired to make emotional decisions. Unfortunately, some uninformed people mock those who make, or who seem to make, so-called “emotional decisions.”

The scientific fact is this: Bro, we all make emotional decisions. Emotions are an integral part of the decision-making psyche, and it is literally impossible to avoid their effect.

come at me bro

(Random Queen meme for good measure.) (Image source)

Every decision is affected on some level by emotions.

And let’s not forget this crucial fact: Emotions are powerful.

And let’s circle back to the point at hand: Curiosity is an emotion.

You can drive more conversions by drawing out an individual’s curiosity. Period.

2. Curiosity is a motivation.

The logical takeaway in the point above kind of gave away this point — curiosity is an emotion.

I don’t want you to miss it though. Curiosity is a motivator. George Loewenstein’s epochal 1994 treatise on curiosity started with this momentous line (emphasis mine):

"Curiosity has been consistently recognized as a critical motive that influences human behavior in both positive and negative ways at all stages of the life cycle."

Every bit of scientific research into the psychology of curiosity that I have encountered identifies the trait of curiosity as a powerful form of motivation.

According to the 16 Basic Desire Theory of motivation, curiosity ranks as a highly influential motivator. Here are all 16 motivators according to the theory:

  • Acceptance, the need to be appreciated.
  • Curiosity, the need to gain knowledge.
  • Eating, the need for food.
  • Family, the need to take care of one’s offspring
  • Honor, the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan.
  • Idealism, the need for social justice.
  • Independence, the need to be distinct and self-reliant.
  • Order, the need for prepared, established and conventional environments.
  • Physical activity, the need for work out of the body.
  • Power, the need for control of will.
  • Romance, the need for mating or sex.
  • Saving, the need to accumulate something.
  • Social contact, the need for relationship with others.
  • Social status, the need for social significance.
  • Tranquility, the need to be secure and protected.
  • Vengeance, the need to strike back against another person

Curiosity is recognized as both an intrinsic emotion and an extrinsic motivation meaning that its motivational power can be exploited from several angles.

But just how powerful can it be?

Einstein, one of the most groundbreaking scientists of all time, said it was curiosity that provided him with the insatiable drive for knowledge and discovery.

Perhaps we can thank the psychology of curiosity for scientific progress. As Einstein famously said, “curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
The important thing is not to stop questioning

You’ve heard the expression “curiosity killed the cat.” The idea is that too much curiosity, investigation or discovery can lead to undesirable consequences.

curiosity killed the cat

(Image source)

Ah, but the conclusion to that proverb is quite telling: “curiosity killed the cat ... but satisfaction brought it back.” Curiosity, in spite of its behavior-changing power, can be satiated by the acquisition of knowledge.

Paul Silvia, psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has alerted the psychological community to the power of curiosity in human behavior. He laments in his article, “Psychologists typically overlook interest itself as a facet of human motivation and emotion.”

Curiosity can turn its motivating powers to undesirable ends. Some people suffer from “morbid curiosity,” which is an addicting form of curiosity regarding harmful events or actions.

Conversion Takeaway

This is going to sound familiar. Because curiosity is a motivator, we as conversion optimizers should use this human motivation to advance conversions on our websites.

You’ll get an exact idea of how this will play out in the points ahead.

3. Curiosity is a desire for knowledge.

Curiosity is a desire, a strong one. But what is it that we desire when we’re experiencing curiosity?

It is the desire for knowledge. The definition of curiosity is “a strong desire to know or learn something."

definition of curiosity

The information gap theory of curiosity states that a person becomes curious when they feel a gap between what they know and what they don’t know. This gap “feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain,” according to Wired. We have to scratch it. We have to satisfy it.

And the way we do that? By gaining knowledge: “We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” More specifically, curiosity demands new knowledge.

Curiosity is what sparks discovery, learning, exploration. It would be easy to argue that curiosity is the basis of nearly all of the scientific discovery and achievements over the course of time.

One research monograph on the subject aptly described the psychology of curiosity as “the wick in the candle of learning.”

Curiosity research, the wick in the candle of learning

Curiosity leads to knowledge.

Conversion Takeaway

Identify what knowledge your users want, and use this bit of knowledge to spark their curiosity.

You possess something that they don’t have: A bit of knowledge. This bit of knowledge is your tool to draw them into a conversion.

This method can work in virtually any niche. Here’s a website providing guitar lessons.

curiosity used in a landing page for guitar lessons

The emerging guitarist is eager for knowledge about songs, lists, details and sample pages. She wants to discover how to play. Clicking draws the user further into the conversion funnel:

Clicking draws the user further into the conversion funnel

The technique works in a much different niche — assisted living.

The following form provides information to those who are seeking care for themselves or a loved one. But to get this information, the user must first provide their contact information.

in order to get this information, the user must first provide their contact information

Notice how the conversion form pushes the curiosity desire further along: “Insider’s view on communities.” Those who are curious will convert. They want to know.

This ad for information on a fight also invites users to “click for more information.”

click for more information

It’s all about the information.

4. Humans feel the greatest level of curiosity when they possess little knowledge on a given subject.

The psychology of curiosity follows a pattern. In keeping with Loewenstein’s information gap theory there is a rising and following pattern to curiosity and its satisfaction.

What kind of pattern? How does it work? According to fMRI studies, curiosity follows an inverted U-shaped curve. The curiosity is strongest (at the top of the curve) when we possess a limited amount of knowledge that comes just short of the answer.

curiosity follows an inverted U-shaped curve

Conversion Takeaway

Your landing page and digital strategy should provide people with the information that they want — but only up to a point. Give them enough information to pique curiosity. In order for them to get more information they will need to convert.

Place your most curiosity-satisfying information behind a conversion gate. In order to get at that information, the user must first fill out a form, provide their email address, etc.

Content marketing is designed to give information. Recognizing, however, that humans want more information, we can give just enough to cause them to want more. That’s why some content marketers know how to create curiosity.

5. Curiosity can be engineered through the careful release of information.

Curiosity isn’t a static one-time event. Curiosity takes place in waves.

As we gain some information, we build on that information by wanting more information. Information leads to curiosity for more information, which leads to even more curiosity for more information.

Curiosity takes place in waves

Contemporary curiosity research admits that our information age has produced vast amounts of information. Rather than suppressing curiosity, such information has expanded curiosity.

Kang, Hsu, et al., wrote this in their Psychological Science research article:

"Modern technologies magnify the amount of information available, and hence the potential effects of curiosity."

In spite of the fact that we seem to be at the apex of content marketing distribution, it’s apparent that there is still a desire for knowledge.

Conversion takeaway

Feed curiosity through the sequential release of knowledge. Each stage in the conversion funnel can be fueled through curiosity.

When you analyze the conversion funnel through the lens of curiosity, you can see just how powerful the itch is.

Notice the following standard diagram regarding the conversion funnel, and identify how it correlates with curiosity.
conversion funnel vs curiosity

(Image source)

  • Awareness is the level of information that sparks curiosity. It starts the itch, so to speak.
  • Interest is the upward movement of curiosity.
  • Desire is the apex on the inverted U-curve — the point at which curiosity has its greatest strength.
  • At this point, the user takes action. They convert.

Watch how this plays out in the funnel for Cisco’s cloud solutions.

I see an ad. I am curious about cures. I am curious about the cure for cancer.

I am curious about cures

I want to learn. I click.

The entire conversion funnel played out in microform in that instant. The ad sparked curiosity. I want knowledge. I will satisfy my curiosity for knowledge.

On the screen that follows, I am still pursuing a satisfaction for my curiosity. This is what I see.

pursuing a satisfaction for my curiosity

Still in curiosity-satisfying mode, I click to watch the story.

I click to watch the story

By the end of the ad, presumably, I will be curious enough to either go to or to subscribe.

By the end of the ad, presumably, I will be curious enough to either go to or to subscribe

Bit by bit, Microsoft is nudging me to the ultimate conversion. It happens through iterations of curiosity.


Conversion optimization can just as well be termed “curiosity optimization.” As conversion optimizers, we are in the business of creating curiosity and satisfying it through conversion action.

I can distill the process into a few simple points:

  • Humans experience curiosity, a powerful and motivating emotion.
  • Curiosity is the desire for knowledge. By partially satisfying the desire for knowledge, we can increase the experience of curiosity.
  • We can satisfy this curiosity by providing information only if the user converts.
  • We can encourage additional conversions through the iterative process of sparking more curiosity and satisfying it through conversion actions.

Curiosity is the currency of conversions. The better you become at cultivating curiosity, the better you will become at optimizing conversions.



Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.