When and Why Job Candidates Don’t Ask Questions [Part II]

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[Continued from Part I]

Other reasons why some job candidates won’t ask questions include the following:

Absence of sanctions: There is a flipside to the fear of punishment for asking questions. It’s the absence of punishments for not being curious and asking questions.  “When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?”, laments J. Peder Zane, Chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

In his engaging online analysis titled Lack of Curiosity is Curious, Zane recounts the experience of another professor who was dismayed to hear one of his students say not only that he didn’t know who Jack Kerouac was or know the name of his past professor who was as wild as Kerouac, but also reply—when asked by this curious professor, “Do you know my name?”—“No.”

If a lack of curiosity can be called “brazen”, it is apparently and ironically rampant where you’d expect it least: in our citadels of learning and monuments to curiosity—our universities and colleges. As one of Zane’s reviewers put it, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”—and, I would add, that they don’t know. [Italics mine.]

If the incurious are confronted over their lack of curiosity and knowledge—ignored as a vice, when not flaunted as a virtue, they are now permitted, as Zane observes, to say “whatever”.

Perhaps this should surprise no one, given that, as I argued in my article “Knowledge Ain’t What It Used to Be”, ignorance is now forgivable, because it is has become inevitable, in light of the knowledge explosion, the rise of extreme specialization, the modern narrow focus on job and economic survival-related information, and online availability of limitless information on a need-to-know, just-in-time basis.

As I’ve put it, in the pre-Web era, it would have been predictably embarrassing to not know what most intelligent people were expected to know. Now, no matter how commonplace or exotic the knowledge that you lack, you can cover up your ignorance by citing something else that you do know, preferably something esoteric that you’ve looked up on the Internet—if you have been curious enough to do even that.

Perhaps Randy is merely one of them.

  •  Over-generalized curiosity deficiency: Assuming some prior curiosity deficiency, other forms of it may be explained. For example, although curiosity takes many different forms—social, intellectual, technological, political, artistic and physical (e.g., extreme sports)—it is possible that strong correlations exist among some of them, as a result of behavioral generalization, on analogy with “stimulus generalization”, through which things that can or should be seen or otherwise experienced as different are lumped together as “the same”.

In my experience, apart from extremely introverted intellectuals, people who display little social curiosity in meeting new people also display little, if any, intellectual curiosity. In some cases, the link may be a lack of confidence in both domains or preoccupation with something else, e.g., personal problems. However, since my evidence is only anecdotal, this is only a suggestion.

A very wise foreman at an aircraft plant I briefly worked at in my youth once told me that there are three kinds of curiosity: about people, ideas and events. That’s not a bad approximation to a more comprehensive classification. The question then becomes whether or not a lack of curiosity in one of these domains is a marker for a lack of curiosity in the other two.

  • Reliance on “indirect curiosity”: Complicating attempted explanation of “incuriosity” is the fact that the same people who will display no curiosity with someone new may express intense curiosity in that person’s absence and, of course, in gossip about him or her. This warrants speculating that curiosity needs to be subdivided into “direct” and “indirect”—especially when the latter seems safer or more productive than the former.

Perhaps Randy was more comfortable with indirect rather than direct curiosity.

  • Arousal saturation and overload: We and other animals require some stimulation, preferably at optimal levels, to function, e.g., to remain attentive or to prevent the kind of desperate attempts at stimulation the repetitive behaviors of caged animals represent.

Bored animals and people will desperately explore available sources of potential stimulation to meet this need, e.g., flip through a back issue of mind-numbing Dental Cement Illustrated magazine during a long wait in a dentist’s office.

At the other extreme, we will resist any further stimulation when we experience stimulation and arousal overload. When already over-stimulated, we will not seek out additional stimulation. This means we will not be curious, since wanting new or additional stimulation is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for manifestation of curiosity.

Pursuing a familiar form of arousal, e.g., skydiving, doesn’t count as curiosity, to the extent that it is motivated by the desire to repeat stimulation, not to learn about it or to be stimulated by learning about it.

Is it not possible that between music endlessly pumped into heads by iPods; interminably scrolled iPhone content; apps and barrages of Facebook, Twitter and text messages, not to mention pot-fog, Millennials and teens neither need nor can handle much more stimulation and curiosity?

So, if Randy found that the tour was overloading him with information, he may have asked no questions because he could not process any more information.

  • Retention anxieties: Alternatively, if, for example on an orientation tour, Randy were particularly fearful of not grasping or retaining what was being presented at the moment, he may have (unconsciously) felt it would be too risky to compromise his recall of what he was hearing and seeing by switching from (aural/visual) input to (oral) output question-framing mode.

Theoretically, that could be attributable to a quirk of his brain, e.g., poor short-term memory, a low threshold for stimulus saturation or an abnormally low capacity to manage multiple inputs or deal with a high rate of input.

  • Low or narrow data utility: One of the glib explanations of a lack of curiosity is “narcissistic self-absorption” as a form of “selective curiosity” or “curiosity bias”: “If it’s not explicitly about me, I’m not interested”. Hence data, stimulation and information not about me are useless and therefore boring—even when potentially valuable to me, if only I were open to them.

True, this can account for a lack of curiosity in many instances, but it is insufficient to universally guarantee it. That’s because it may be in my narcissistic self-interest to seek and get such information, e.g., at a house party, if I need a ride home: “So, what kind of car do you drive?”

One powerful cultural factor that can cause a dramatic narrowing of the curiosity bandwidth is generational marketing: If something has no relevance or value to my (self-absorbed) generation, there’s no reason to be curious about it. Here “stimulus discrimination” is at work: “They are not us, so I’m not interested.” Modern generational marketing, rolled out after WW II to snag cash-flush teenagers and, more generally, pitched to specific age groups by demarcating them from others in an invidious way, implants this perspective.

Since Randy’s curiosity deficiency was organizational, rather than generational, this explanation is unlikely to apply to him. However, if the interviewer were much older than he, the likelihood of questions directed at and about her would probably be much lower—if Randy had been programmed by generational marketing, since nothing about her would be likely to be seen to have much utility or relevance.

Given that the Latin root of “curiosity” is related to “cura”—“care”, it should come as no surprise that those who don’t care are not curious. Naturally, narcissism narrows the range of things about which to care, where it doesn’t translate them into self-interest.

  • Induced passivity and complacency: It is fair to ask whether curiosity is neither necessary nor possible for many who live in comfortable, safe and secure circumstances saturated with passive entertainment.

In such circumstances, there may be no itches that need to be scratched, beyond being curious about what’s on TV or for dinner, no perceived interesting incongruities, no insistent inner drive to find out much of anything (given around-the-clock easy access to the Internet when or if information is needed or somehow wanted).

If this explanation applies to Randy, then perhaps he had no itch—felt no anxiety, perceived no mystery, and experienced neither confusion nor wonder that needed to be immediately addressed through overt or even covert curiosity, i.e., through questions asked or merely silently framed.

And even if he had the slightest itch, it may be that culturally-induced and accepted passivity may have generated enough inertia or resistance to ensure he wouldn’t scratch.

Possible Biomedical and Physiological Causes

As suggested above, there are, in addition to these various psychological, cultural and sociological factors, possible biomedical causes of curiosity deficiencies. These include

  •  Dopamine and opioid imbalances in the brain
  • Memory deficiencies (given that to be curious about something means remembering it)
  •  Attention deficit disorders (since curiosity—especially sustained curiosity—presupposes attention and an associated longish attention span. Now that pot smoking is being widely legalized, it’s worth wondering what will happen to job-interview/tour attention spans, short-term memory and curiosity—after curiosity about pot has been indulged to the full.
  • Abnormalities of various brain structures, e.g., anterior pituitary, striatum, amygdala, parahippocampal gyrus, nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus or the precuneus.

But to wind this analysis down, I have to encourage you to investigate these yourselves…

…assuming you are curious.

Read more in Interview Questions

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).