Approaching tasks with a curious as opposed to a high-pressure mindset may improve memory. The corresponding study was published in PNAS.
For the study, researchers recruited 420 adults to play a computer game in which they would partake in an art museum heist. The participants were randomly assigned into one of two groups with different prompts. The first prompt aimed to stir urgency in the participants by telling them they were a ‘master thief’ and in the middle of a heist. The second group was told they were thieves scouting a museum to plan a future heist.
After receiving each of the prompts, the two groups played the same game in the same way, which involved exploring an art museum and finding paintings of different values behind different doors. A day later, they completed a pop quiz in which they were asked whether they could recognize 175 paintings, 100 of which were from the game and 75 of which were new. If patients flagged a painting as familiar, they also had to recall how much it was worth.
"The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day," said Alyssa Sinclair, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher working in the lab of Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and one of the study's authors, in a press release.
"They correctly recognized more paintings. They remembered how much each painting was worth. And reward boosted memory, so valuable paintings were more likely to be remembered. But we didn't see that in the urgent group participants who imagined executing the heist," she continued.
The researchers noted, however, that those who were told they were in the middle of a heist were better at figuring out which doors hid more expensive paintings and thus managed to accumulate more of them and finish with more ‘stash’.
They concluded that while the curiosity-driven mindset enhanced memory, the high-pressure mindset led to higher game scores. They noted that this infers that while high-pressure mindsets may be useful for short-term problems- such as being confronted by a bear on a hike or when encouraging people to be vaccinated- a curiosity-driven mindset may be better-suited for encouraging longer-term memory or action.
"Sometimes you want to motivate people to seek information and remember it in the future, which might have longer term consequences for lifestyle changes. Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information,” said Dr. Sinclair.