Dirtiest Hotels of 2009: A Lesson in Sparking Curiosity

I got a broadcast email one day from TripAdvisor. I was just about to delete it when I noticed the subject line: The Dirtiest Hotels of 2009. That gave me pause. I read some of the quotes from people who’d stayed in these hotels: One said: "I have 30 bites from bugs in Room 919." And I had to click through. I had no choice. I had to know what the hotels were—and had I stayed at any of them? Are any of them in my hometown? You got me, TripAdvisor.

This ad worked because it made me curious. And believe it or not, there’s actually a theory of how you can generate curiosity. It’s from George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University. He said curiosity comes from a gap between what we know and what we want to know. And if you make people aware that the gap exists, it causes a kind of itch—it’s unpleasant. To make that itch go away, we’ll do some work to find the answer. TripAdvisor opened a gap in mind that I had to close—I had to know what those hotels were, and I was willing to work to get the answer. I suspect their click-thru rates on that ad were crazy.

There’s a book with a title that’s a curiosity gap: Why Do Men Have Nipples? 10 seconds ago, I doubt you were wondering about that, but once you’ve been focused on the issue, you might get curious. The book Freakonomics also does this brilliantly. On the cover you see a lot of questions like, "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?" Or, "Why do so many drug dealers live with their moms?" And all the sudden, you find yourself flipping through the book for the answer.

Even a little bit of effort to create curiosity gaps can pay off. My brother and I got a note from the budget director of a church in Mountain View, and he said he’d used a curiosity gap to attract people to the church’s finance meeting. He asked a few questions like, "How much do you think our church spends to host coffee-hour after services in a year?" He said he’d answer the questions at the next meeting. Attendance doubled, and he was thrilled.

If you want to learn more about curiosity gaps—including the link to the 9 dirtiest hotels in the USA, check out the resources below.

 

George Loewenstein is the behavioral economist who formulated the "gap theory" of curiosity—here's his original paper on the topic. In Made to Stick, we talk about the gap theory in our chapter on Unexpectedness. (For teachers, we created a free file called "Teaching that Sticks" that talks a good bit about curiosity. See the Resources page of our Web site.) Lots of curiosity gaps will be used on you in the book Freakonomics, which you've probably already read. In this Powell's blog entry, I address the curiosity-gap-minded question, "Are cats left-pawed or right-pawed?" Here's the tale of the church finance director. And last but not least, here's the link to TripAdvisor's Dirtiest Hotels.

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