Why are humans so nosy?

You can see it when something happens. There is a car crash somewhere and sometimes there is another one when people drive by very slowly to see what happened (Update: just found out that there even is a term for this. It’s called Rubbernecking). Or there are the blinking lights of police, ambulance or fire fighters, and immediately people gather around. Someone was beaten up or killed in your home town and immediately there is an urge to know the circumstances.

So, why are humans inherently nosy (and I don’t mean this in a negative way)? One answer to this question appears to be: because we want to understand, how to avoid dangerous situations, how to protect ourselves, and basically learn from the failure of others.

There was a fire a couple of streets away from your house. Fire has an immediate importance to our life. Not only can it burn all your possessions but it can also kill you. Our parents preached on and on not to play with fires, matches, candles and so on. If we assume that everyone parents did this and everyone is as cautious with fire as we are, why then was there a house burning down? There are two reasons and only one of them is really important to us:

(1) something happened that we would have avoided (because we believe that we were more careful), or
(2) something happened that could have also happened to us (because for example we would not have expected that a phone charger can cause a fire).

While the first reason would be a perfect topic for a pub discussion (humans just love to talk about the carelessness and unwariness of other people), the second is the one we can actually learn something from. Thankfully, nothing happened to our health and property. Thus, without putting anything at risk we learned how to reduce the risk of fire in our own homes.

And there it is again: social learning. We learn by interacting with or observing of others, while simultaneously avoiding costs for this type of learning. The opposite type (individual learning) where insight is yielded by trial-and-error would have cost us a lot more (in this specific case). Thus, in my opinion, many cases of curiosity and nosiness in humans can be explained by social learning and the attempt to reduce learning costs of individual learning (Note: this is of course a very condensed statement, but I want to keep it brief for this blog post).

See also:

Blogger Travis Okulski complaining about Rubbernecking people

Wikipedia entry on Rubbernecking 

A study on the influence of Rubbernecking on Urban Freeways

Phone charger causing fire