Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Communication. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 17 April 2021

Message Recipient Psychological Characteristics: Incurious and Curious Motives to Learn about Health Riskslocked

  • Jordan LitmanJordan LitmanPsychology & Community Studies Program, University of Maine at Machias


Successfully conveying information about the risk of potential threats to an individual’s physical and mental health is a serious challenge for healthcare practitioners. Adding to the challenge is the role of individual differences in people’s tendencies to want to learn (or in their choice to passively avoid) new information. These characteristic motives can be both curious and incurious in nature and interact with the perceived locus of the relevant health threat, which must be taken into account first. Some health threats are relatively “external,” and involve addressing the potential risk of an undesired event (e.g., developing illness, encountering relationship troubles). Research indicates that individuals who view external threats as “controllable” are more likely to respond positively to relevant information, but perception of control alone does not determine whether health-relevant information is likely to be sought or acted on. Besides perceived controllability, individual differences in incurious worry reduction motives (IWRM) play an important role as well. Two different kinds of IWRM have been identified: focus on distress (IWRM-FD) and focus on relief (IWRM-FR). Dispositional tendencies toward IWRM-FD are associated with greater willingness to seek out information when risk is perceived as low (i.e., information about the potential external threat is expected to make one feel better), but a tendency to passively avoid any information when risk is considered high (i.e., information is expected to intensify distress). In contrast, tendencies toward IWRM-FR reflect wanting more information about potential threats when risk is believed to be high, while passively avoiding news when perceived risk is low. In regard to coping with perceived risk, IWRM-FD scores predict avoidant coping, whereas IWRM-FR levels are associated with proactive coping and seeking others’ advice.

Other risks are more “internal,” and involve threats to an individual’s certainty about his or her self-concept, purpose in life, or the wisdom of past behavior; in short, an “identity crisis.” Such threats underlie wondering things like “Who am I, really?” and are associated with less self-awareness, lower self-esteem, and greater overall distress. In response to internal threats, intrapersonal curiosity (InC) motivates individuals to engage in introspective self-exploration that may help them to clarify, to elaborate on, and to improve their understanding of their self-concept. Recent research has found that individual differences in InC are positively associated with IWRM, suggesting that dealing with identity crises involves the desire to better know oneself, as well as wishing to mitigate worries about experiencing self-doubt.

Bearing the above in mind, research on individual differences in tendencies to avail oneself of different coping strategies indicates that proactive coping (e.g., positive reframing, seeking advice) tends to result in beneficial outcomes, such as personal growth and improved health, but some proactive strategies are “double-edged” and may lead to some negative outcomes as well. In particular, proactive strategies like acceptance of one’s limitations or discussing them with others when seeking social support were helpful, but they also had the potential to leave individuals feeling less sure of themselves. These findings suggest that practitioners who wish to more effectively communicate information about risk of potential health threats should consider whether the nature of the threat is internal or external, the role of individual differences in IWRM and InC, and how to help their patients to focus on the positive benefits of acceptance (i.e., identify solvable problems) and seeking social support (i.e., acquiring useful advice) over the negative aspects (i.e., admitting limitations).

On the Nature of Perceived Risks and Their Expected Impact on Health and Well-being

Successfully conveying messages about the risk of potential threats to a patient’s physical and mental health and well-being presents a serious challenge for healthcare practitioners. First, messages must be conveyed with the aim of achieving a clear understanding of the exact nature of the potential threat (e.g., specific symptoms, communicability, prognosis) in a way that is easily understandable to laypersons, who may not possess sufficient background knowledge about the potential threat. Regardless of the exact nature of the threat, one important piece of information that practitioners should communicate to their patients is the likelihood or relative risk that the potential threat might actually come to fruition and negatively affect their health and well-being. Subsequent counsel would logically address what steps might be taken to mitigate the risk.

However, despite healthcare experts’ providing highly detailed information on the nature of a given threat or its relative risk, individuals will still form their own personal appraisals of their vulnerability to the threats (Lazarus, 1991). Such appraisals are key to whether individual patients determine if some form of coping or precaution adoption is necessary. If individuals optimistically view their vulnerability to be relatively low, they may not take appropriate precautionary measures (Weinstein & Lyon, 1999). If patients appraise their degree of vulnerability to be relatively high, they are more likely to adopt some form of coping strategy. In this case, individuals may attempt to deal with the potential threat to their health and well-being through proactive, approach-oriented actions, such as the adoption of, and adherence to, an advised treatment regimen, or they may seek social support from others. Alternatively, rather than deal directly with the threat, patients may instead engage in avoidance-oriented coping responses, such as mental or behavioral disengagement or denial (Litman, 2006). Additionally, along with appraising their vulnerability to a given threat, patients may also endeavor to assess the severity of the potential threat (Spielberger, Vagg, & Wasala, 2003). Both kinds of appraisals play a role in whether patients choose to undertake any form of precautionary behavior (cf. Weinstein, 1987; Weinstein & Sandman, 1992).

Another form of appraisal that has received somewhat less attention in the relevant literature on coping with potential threats to one’s health and well-being is a patient’s appraisal of the locus of the potential threat’s impact. In very general terms, such appraisals are concerned with the extent to which individuals view the actual effect of a threat, if it should come to fruition, to be relatively “external” or “internal” in regard to its impact on the individual, as well as the nature of adaptation required to adequately respond to the threat. External threats require adaptation in patients’ day-to-day behaviors in the social world; by contrast, internal threats correspond to experiences that may disrupt the stability and certainty of one’s self-concept, for which adaptation involves introspection and exploration of the inner self (Litman, Robinson, & Demetre, 2017; Robinson, Demetre, & Litman, 2016).

Examples of external threats to health and well-being include risks for infection or illnesses—in a very fundamental way, external threats typically correspond to discovery of unwelcome news about one’s health or well-being that may directly and negatively impact the quality of one’s daily life. A key factor in determining how individuals will attempt to cope with information about external threats (i.e., approach or avoid) is the degree to which they perceive such threats to be “controllable.” When external threats are viewed as controllable, individuals are more likely to respond proactively with approach-oriented protective actions, whereas external threats deemed beyond one’s ability to exert some control may lead to the use of avoidance-oriented coping strategies (Cameron, 2008; Litman & Lunsford, 2009; Rodin & Langer, 1977). Although external threats may be either relatively physical (e.g., risk of contracting a particular virus) or relatively psychological in nature (e.g., a strained relationship with a friend or loved one), such threats are external in the sense that they are not appraised by individuals as significantly compromising the stability or certainty of their self-concept.

Other risks are more internal, in the sense that they may make patients acutely aware of a possible incongruity between current self-construals and the self-construal they may develop as a result of news about potential threats to their health and well-being from a qualified practitioner—an incongruity that may create profound self-doubt (Carroll, Arkin, & Shade, 2011). As with external threats, internal threats may arise from primarily physical factors (e.g., individuals who find out they are at risk for suffering an injury that may severely reduce their athletic prowess, reducing their self-perceived status as an “athlete”) or from psychological threats (e.g., receiving a diagnosis of major depression when one had not considered oneself to be a “depressed person”). The common theme among potential internal threats is that they all motivate individuals not only to consider whether their day-to-day activities must be altered in order to adapt to the threat, but also to look inward and question their concept of who they are. Threats to an individual’s self-concept may require a reconsideration of one’s purpose in life or reassessment of the relative wisdom of past behaviors (i.e., especially those that may have contributed to a looming threat). Internal threats may create considerable distress, akin to what Erikson (1968; Erikson & Erikson, 1997) described as an “identity crisis,” for which a great deal of self-reflection may be necessary to engage in before an individual can effectively cope with the associated distress (Levinson, 1996; Robinson & Smith; 2010; Robinson & Stell, 2015; Robinson, Demetre, & Litman, 2016; Slaikeu, 1990).

Given the nature of internal threats, healthcare practitioners may find themselves facing an unexpected challenge when informing patients about the risk of potential threats to their health and well-being, in that in the course of endeavoring to mitigate external threats, practitioners may inadvertently reveal unforeseen internal threats to their patients as well (Barlow, 2010). An especially relevant example of this problem exists in providing patients with information about their genome structure, especially in light of research findings that suggest laypersons’ understanding of genetics often reflects a presumption that people’s genes determine their fate (Cameron & Reeve, 2006; Parrot et al., this issue). Informing patients about the role their genes play in their vulnerability to substance addiction, for example, may result in undesirable external and internal impacts. In keeping with this example, if individuals conclude (often, erroneously) that they cannot exert much or any control over their “genetically determined” proclivities, they may be less inclined to engage in precaution adoption, choosing instead to engage in avoidance-oriented methods of coping, increasing the likelihood that a potential external threat could become an actuality (Litman, 2006). Also in keeping with this example (although the same argument could be applied to individuals who discover that they have any genes associated with any given problem), individuals may find themselves needing to re-evaluate both their self-concept and their worldview if they hold strong attitudes about the role of “will power” in, say, eschewing intoxicants (cf. Beebe, 2013), while at the same time having more deterministic views about “genetic tendencies.” Thus, it is important that healthcare practitioners take into account how best to convey information about risks to their patients’ health and well-being in relation to both potential external and internal impacts.

Recent empirical findings on individual differences in psychological factors of patient message-receivers may be critical for healthcare practitioners to consider before attempting to convey information and to counsel patients about risks to their health and well-being. First, there are individual differences in how individuals respond to external and internal threats, as well as individual differences in tendencies to utilize certain coping strategies over others in response to different threats. Additionally, there are relative advantages and disadvantages in coping with the perceived risk of potential internal and external threats that may be important to consider as well. In the following sections, external and internal threats will be treated separately in some detail.

Responding to Messages about the Risk of Potential External Threats: Wanting New Information versus Passively Avoiding It

Research indicates that individuals who view external threats as controllable are more likely to respond positively to relevant information (Carver & Vargas, 2011; Cameron, 2008). However, given the generally poor understanding of the relationship between genes, behavior, and health in the general population, communication between patients and practitioners may be hampered by the considerable uncertainty concerning the degree and nature of the risk (Parrot et al., this issue). Faced with uncertainty about external threats, individuals may find themselves in a quandary: on the one hand, after actively seeking out, or even simply attending to, information relevant to the degree of risk associated with the threats, individuals may conclude that the information will facilitate their ability to proactively cope with the problem itself or the associated stress. On the other hand, they may learn undesirable news about the potential threat, which can result in experiences of increased worry—unpleasant thoughts and feelings associated with distress—about the potential threat (Khawaja & Chapman, 2007). In these circumstances, individuals face uncertainty about their future health and well-being, and more information must be obtained in order to determine the degree of risk and whether or not effective coping is even possible. Variation in the tendency to seek out new information capable of reducing uncertainty is typically attributed to individual differences in curiosity (Berlyne, 1966; Litman, 2008; Loewenstein, 1994); however, when one’s health and well-being are at stake, seeking out this knowledge may be daunting.

According to Afifi and Weiner’s theory of motivated information management (Afifi & Weiner, 2004, 2006), if the information concerning the risk of a potential health threat is anticipated to be relatively positive (i.e., finding out that the risk is minimal), individuals will be more likely to actively seek it. However, if the information is expected to be negative (i.e., finding out that the risk is high), individuals are expected to want the information only if they feel capable of successfully coping with it; otherwise, individuals may passively avoid the information entirely. Active-approach or passive-avoidance responses to potentially threatening information may have important consequences for the general health and well-being of individuals, as failing to gather information about potential threats may interfere with their ability to cope successfully with threats.

However, the dispositional factors that may increase the likelihood of engaging in information seeking about potential threats are unclear, and studies of the conditions that motivate individuals to actively seek such information have generally neglected to examine the role of personality variables very deeply, if at all (Afifi, Dillow, & Morse, 2004; Beckjord, Rutten, Arora, Moser, & Bradford, 2008; Conley, Taylor, Kemeny, Cole, & Visscher, 1999). Related areas of research on dispositional worry and other expressions of distress have generally emphasized motives to avoid, rather than approach, information (Dugas, Freeston, & Ladouceur, 1997; Dugas, Gagnon, Ladouceur, & Freeston, 1998; Ladouceur, Gosselin, & Dugas, 2000; Krohne, 1993; Robichaud & Dugas, 2005; Sexton & Dugas, 2008, 2009), or have focused on situations that specifically involve emotionally supportive social interactions rather than opportunities to obtain knowledge directly relevant to the actual threat (Kashdan & Roberts, 2006; Kashdan, Elhai, & Breen, 2007; Renner, 2006).

Importantly, none of these personality-oriented studies has focused specifically on seeking information about potential threats to one’s physical or psychological well-being. In situations where there are potential threats, information seeking—if motivated at all—may not be motivated by a desire to simply reduce uncertainty for the sake of stimulating interest or improving one’s understanding, as with curiosity, but rather by a desire to reduce worry associated with the potential threat (cf. Feltwell & Rees, 2004, and Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2005, for highly similar views). Thus, when individuals are uncertain about potential threats, motives for resolving their uncertainty may be incurious, rather than curious, in nature. Moreover, when individuals are presented with opportunities to act on their incurious motives to gather potentially threatening information, their expectations about how the information will affect them influences their likelihood of seeking it out.

Individual differences in psychological characteristics, such as how people react when worried, referred to as incurious worry reduction motives (IWRM), play an important role as well. Two different kinds of IWRM have been identified: focus on distress (IWRM-FD) and focus on relief (IWRM-FR). Dispositional tendencies toward IWRM-FD are associated with greater willingness to seek out information when risk is perceived as low (i.e., information about the potential external threat is expected to make one feel better), but a tendency to passively avoid any information when risk is considered high (i.e., information is expected to intensify distress). In contrast, tendencies toward IWRM-FR reflect wanting more information about potential threats when risk is believed to be high, while passively avoiding news when perceived risk is low. In coping with perceived risk, IWRM-FD scores predict avoidant coping, whereas IWRM-FR levels are associated with proactive coping and seeking others’ advice (Litman & Lunsford, 2010). Put another way, IWRM-FD corresponds to simply wanting to escape distress, whereas IWRM-FR was associated with an orientation toward managing the threat if the risk is deemed highly probable.

To measure individual differences in IWRM, Litman and Lunsford (2010) developed two internally consistent 6-item scales, found to have only minimal relationships with measures of trait-curiosity and moderately strong positive relationships to measures of tendencies to worry. In predicting reports of wanting to discover the outcomes associated with potentially threatening information, although both IWRM scales predicted wanting more information, the nature of the relationship depended on expectations about perceived risk. The IWRM-FD scale was associated with wanting news about the risk that was expected to be positive, whereas the IWRM-FR scale was primarily associated with preferring to find out information about the risk that was expected to confirm its existence.

These findings suggested that IWRM-FD motivates information seeking expected to buffer against distress, and also suggested that if bad news was expected, individuals high in IWRM-FD might passively avoid the information. By contrast, IWRM-FR appeared to be primarily associated with wanting information capable of identifying problems that would require additional coping. Consistent with the view that IWRM-FD involves seeking good news but avoiding bad news, in a second study, Litman and Lunsford found that scores on the IWRM-FD scale were positively correlated with the use of avoidance-oriented coping strategies, such as behavioral and mental disengagement, substance use, and denial, whereas scores on the IWRM-FR scale were positively associated with the use of approach-oriented coping strategies, including active coping and seeking out instrumental social support, but correlated negatively the use of the aforementioned avoidant-coping strategies, particularly substance use. These findings also provided additional evidence that focusing on experiences of distress is meaningfully distinct from focusing on achieving relief, and involves psychologically different methods of responding to potentially threatening information. The authors concluded that practitioners would be well advised to take into account (a) the particular information needs of their patients, in order to more successfully convey information relevant to their patients’ health, and (b) how their patients deal with any associated distress, as well as patients’ subsequent efforts to protect their physical and psychological well-being.

Responding to Perceived Internal Threats: Risks to the Stability of One’s Self-Concept

Potential internal threats to health and well-being reflect uncertainty about who one is, uncertainty about one’s identity or purpose in life, or a recognition of being unsure if past choices were the right ones. Such challenges may result in what Erikson (1968) referred to as a “crisis,” the overcoming of which requires individuals to break out of existing behavioral and cognitive routines and actively explore novel conceptions of one’s inner self as well as of others and the outside world in general. Such explorations may involve seeking new sources of meaning better able to offer explanations of the individual’s circumstances, an interval of time commonly referred to as a “moratorium” (Marcia, 1993). Given the importance of obtaining new knowledge when faced with a crisis, practitioners need to understand research findings on individual differences in dispositional tendencies to desire knowledge about potential crisis that appear to be motivated by curiosity aimed at questioning the inner self. Additionally, practitioners need to understand the role of mitigating worry associated with internal threats.

Internal threats to one’s psychological well-being involve feelings of uncertainty about one’s identify and self-concept—in other words, internal threats are associated with experiences that place the clarity or stability of one’s inner self at risk (cf. Campbell, Assanand, & DiPaula, 2003). Examples of internal threats include encountering new or unexpected events that may raise tough questions about one’s values, one’s purpose in life, or the relative wisdom (or luckiness) of one’s past behavior (Litman, Robinson, & Demetre, 2017; Robinson, Demetre, & Litman, 2016). Internal threats are theorized to coincide with intervals of personal crisis (Robinson & Wright, 2013), during which individuals are found to display diminished self-esteem, poorer interpersonal regulation, lower levels of self-awareness, less psychological well-being, and greater states of distress (Robinson, Demetre, & Litman, 2016). In such cases, both mindfulness—introspective self-exploration—and seeking advice from others play an important role in healthy coping (Carlson, 2013). However, internal threats are also found to be positively associated with more frequent expressions of intrapersonal curiosity (InC), defined as the tendency to become introspectively inquisitive about one’s inner self (Litman et al., 2017; Robinson et al., 2016). Importantly, this line of research has also found evidence of small to moderately strong positive associations among reports of poor self-concept clarity, InC, and IWRM. These findings suggest that, although previous research by Litman and Lunsford (2010) indicated that wanting new information to cope with external threats mainly reflects incurious motives (i.e., driven by worry), dealing with internal threats appears to involve a combination of both curious and incurious desires for new knowledge—that is, dealing with internal threats corresponds to a desire to better understand and resolve uncertainty about the inner self while at the same time mitigating distress and worry.

Curious and Incurious Motives to Learn about Perceived Risks and Associated Coping Behaviors

Whether or not a potential threat to health and well-being and its associated risk involves relatively external or internal domains, individuals who desire new knowledge relevant to coping with the threat (whether their reasons are oriented primarily toward reducing worry or toward both dealing with worry and also gaining a better understanding of the self) may engage in either adaptive or maladaptive coping behaviors. Research on IWRM found that, across a range of potential objective risks, IWRM-FD correlated positively with tendencies to use avoidant-coping strategies, whereas IWRM-FR was associated positively with engaging in proactive coping, such as problem solving and seeking advice. As previously noted, in research on factors that predict whether individuals will want to learn more about potentially threatening information, or passively avoid such information, measures of curiosity were uncorrelated with wanting news about so-called external threats. Also as previously noted, while measures of IWRM are predictive of wanting information about external threats, the nature of the relationship depended on expectations. The IWRM-FD scale was associated with wanting information about the threat’s outcome that was expected to be relatively desirable, whereas the IWRM-FR scale was primarily associated with desiring outcome-relevant information expected to be generally undesirable.

These findings suggested that the IWRM-FD motivates information seeking expected to buffer against distress, and also suggested that if bad news was expected, individuals high in IWRM-FD might passively avoid the information. By contrast, IWRM-FR appeared to be primarily associated with wanting information capable of identifying problems that would require additional coping. Importantly, these results suggested that IWRM-FD reflected a desire to minimize distress, whereas IWRM-FR reflects a motivation to identify and deal directly with problems. In the case of more existential threats to one’s self-concept, while InC appeared to correspond to genuine expressions of curiosity (i.e., a desire to improve one’s understanding of the risk), InC was also found to be associated with IWRM. Thus, for internal threats, information seeking appears to be motivated by both a desire for self-discovery as well as concern about dealing with worrying thoughts and feelings of distress. Overall, research on InC and on IWRM suggests that gathering knowledge about potential threats to one’s health or well-being may motivate some form of subsequent coping.

Coping Well versus Coping Poorly

Research on the use of a variety of specific coping strategies suggests that there are likely to be three (or at most four) major dimensions. Factor analyses of the COPE inventory (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989) by Litman (2006) and others (Connor & Connor, 2003) have consistently found evidence of a factor reflecting approach-oriented self-sufficient strategies, a second factor that reflects approach-oriented social-support-related coping, and a third factor defined by different avoidance-oriented strategies. Moreover, across these studies, the identified factors almost always comprised both problem- and emotion-focused strategies, suggesting that Folkman and Lazarus’s (1980, 1985) classic distinction may be less meaningful than originally thought in differentiating between different forms of coping. Building on these findings, Litman and Lunsford (2009) concluded that, in order to elucidate the value of the problem-focused vs. emotion-focused distinction, it would be necessary to demonstrate that coping strategies afford different degrees of effectiveness in managing stressors and stress reactions.

In a study of over 400 individuals experiencing a wide variety of stressful life events, classified according to the major stressor categories from Holmes and Rahe’s (1967) social readjustment rating scale, Litman and Lunsford examined individual differences in tendencies to utilize the numerous specific coping strategies assessed by the COPE inventory. Following content analysis of the respondents’ stressful experiences, stressors were classified as illness or injury (labeled “medical”), difficulty with a friend, family member, or romantic partner (“relationship”), “school or work problems,” “death of a friend or loved one,” and “financial or legal troubles.” Guided by Lazarus’s (1993) appraisal model, which predicts that individuals adapt their use of various coping strategies according to their perceived success or failure, Litman and Lunsford evaluated relationships between the frequency that various coping strategies were used by respondents and the impact that a given strategy had on their corresponding problem (i.e., the stressor) and associated emotional experiences. Additionally, respondents were asked to indicate how much personal control they felt they had over the stressful event. Using exploratory path analysis, relationships between choices in coping, views on controllability, and outcomes relevant to post-event health and well-being were examined, including self-efficacy (Bandura, 1993), personal growth (e.g., improved self-concept, optimism) and diminishment (e.g., reduced self-esteem, greater pessimism; Park, Cohen, & Murch, 1996), as well as reports of any post-event illness symptoms (Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005).

Litman and Lunsford (2009) found that, as hypothesized, none of the strategies significantly affected problems differently from their impact on emotions, contrary to Folkman and Lazarus’s (1980, 1985) view. Also as predicted, approach-oriented strategies tended to have positive impacts, while avoidance-oriented strategies tended to have negative impacts. These findings suggested that it might be more meaningful to consider the overall impact of a coping strategy, rather than its unique effects on problems or emotions. With regard to long-term outcomes (i.e., post stressful event), the results were much more nuanced and complex: use of approach-oriented strategies, such as “acceptance” and “planning,” tended to facilitate self-efficacy, while positive reinterpretations of stressful events predicted greater personal growth. The study also found that seeking social support, whether for emotional comfort or advice (“instrumental social support”) was negatively associated with feelings of diminishment, indicating that social support provides a valuable buffer against the negative effects of stress (Chesney & Darbes, 1998). In contrast, use of both “emotional venting” and “behavioral disengagement” was associated with greater subsequent distress, suggesting that the more these strategies were used, the more people tended to feel diminished after the stressful event had concluded.

However, unexpectedly, two approach-oriented strategies were also associated with some negative outcomes as well. Use of acceptance and seeking instrumental social support were also positively associated with feeling more diminished. The authors concluded that these two strategies were a “double-edged sword,” in that they are capable of helping people grow in some ways, such as better knowledge of one’s self or feeling more able to handle future stressors, while at the same time they result in some increased overall distress or reduced self-esteem because each may lead to a greater awareness of one’s limitations (i.e., realizing some unpleasant events cannot be changed, but must be endured; realizing one could not face a stressful event without relying on the help of others).

Advice for Practitioners: How to Inform Individuals about Health Risks

Practitioners endeavoring to inform patients of the degree of risk they have for a potential threat face unique challenges. In particular, practitioners should help their patients to focus on the positive benefits of acceptance (i.e., identifying solvable problems) and seeking instrumental social support (i.e., acquiring useful advice) instead of the negative aspects (i.e., admitting limitations), because this focus can facilitate patients’ experience of improved self-efficacy and growth, as well as buffer against diminishment and illness. There are several potentially valuable approaches for practitioners who wish to advise patients about coping with stress. First, although research indicates that it would be sensible for practitioners to direct their patients to use approach-oriented strategies instead avoidance-oriented ones, evidence that some approach-oriented strategies are double-edged indicates that further counseling is warranted. In particular, practitioners should (a) guide their patients to focus more on the positive benefits of acceptance (i.e., identifying solvable problems, while learning to be at peace with problems that may be beyond one’s control) and the merits of being more open and receptive to support that may be available (but underutilized) from friends, family, or community members, if it is applicable to do so (e.g., in group or family therapy); (b) directly address any lingering concerns a patient may have about taking the support; (c) help patients deal with any discomfort over admitting limitations; (d) facilitate their patients’ potential to experience optimal personal growth; and (e) buffer against the risk of any potential negative effects.

Conclusions about Individual Differences in Curious and Incurious Information Seeking and Coping with Perceived Risks

The findings of several recent studies on individual differences in facets of personality involved in both curious and incurious information seeking point to several specific dimensions of personality that may influence decisions to actively seek or passively avoid news about potential health threats. In particular, findings from research on curiosity about the self (intrapersonal curiosity) and on incurious motives to reduce worry regarding self-relevant threats suggest that individual differences in tendencies to inquisitively examine one’s inner nature are important in dealing with self-relevant crises that are more internal, while concerns about how to best cope with external threats have the potential to negatively affect health and well-being in relation to adhering to health regimens. These findings suggest that it may be worthwhile for practitioners to consider assessing patients’ relevant curious and incurious motives using the InC and IWRM scales, which may provide insight in how to better communicate information about health threats to patients. Equipped with information about patients’ tendencies to seek or avoid health-relevant information, practitioners may be better positioned to offer counsel that will result in more informed and engaged patients and, potentially, may facilitate patients’ adherence to recommended health practices or routine diagnostic screening. Furthermore, practitioners who measure curious and incurious motives may also be able to identify patients who pose a greater likelihood of engaging in avoidant forms of coping and who may benefit from additional counseling in order to help mitigate such tendencies. Addressing the underlying curious and incurious motives of patients also has the potential to raise practitioners’ awareness of which patients are more or less likely to question their self-concept on the basis of their health, which may also be highly important to consider in offering counsel. Taken together, these findings may inform practitioners on ways of both conveying information more effectively and guiding individuals toward more adaptive coping strategies, with, consequently, desirable health outcomes.


IWRM Scale

Imagine times when you felt very stressed or worried about something and you didn’t know what the outcome would be. Take a moment to think about these occasions, and indicate how you generally feel during stressful or worrying situations using the following scale:

1 = Almost Never

2 = Sometimes

3 = Often

4 = Almost Always

Use the above scale to respond to each item below. Read each item as a continuation of the following statement:

“In general, when I am feeling stressed or worried over something that I don’t know…


I’ll feel better after I find out.” ______


The problem will always be on my mind.” ______


I would rather know than be left wondering.” ______


I’d feel much better if I just knew.” ______


It will be all I think about until I know.” ______


I don’t like not knowing.” ______


I will be lost in thought about what’s bothering me.” ______


It will bother me until I find out.” ______


I can’t be happy until I know the truth.” ______


I’ll feel relieved once I know.” ______


I would rather know than not know.” ______


I can’t focus on anything else while worrying.” ______

Scoring the IWRM

Sum items 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 12 for the FD (focus on distress) scale

Sum items 1, 3, 4, 6, 10, and 11 for the FR (focus on relief) scale.

For more details see Litman, J. A., & Lunsford, G. D. (2010). Incurious motives to seek information about potential threats. European Journal of Personality, 24, 1–17.

The Intrapersonal Curiosity (InC) Scale

A number of statements that people use to describe themselves are given below. Read each statement and then select the appropriate response using the scale below to indicate how you generally feel. There are no right or wrong answers. Do not spend too much time on any one statement, but give the answer that seems to describe how you generally feel.

1 = Almost Never

2 = Sometimes

3 = Often

4 = Almost Always


I wonder about my purpose in life.


I imagine what my life might have been like had I taken different paths.


I try to make sense of how I feel.


I find myself thinking about the reason for my existence.


I think about alternative choices I might have made.


I try to understand the source of my emotions.


I question whether I really know who I am.


I reflect upon how good or bad my decisions in life have been.


I reflect upon my actions and think about what they say about me.


I ask myself “Who am I really?”


I wonder about how my life would be right now if I had made different decisions in my past.


I try to analyze and interpret the reasons for what I do or say.

Scoring the InC Scale and Subscales

InC Total Scale = sum of all items

InC-Understanding Emotions and Motives = 1 + 4 +7 + 10

InC-Exploring Purpose and Identity = 3 + 6 + 9 + 12

InC-Reflecting On Past = 2 + 5 + 8 + 11

For more information, see Litman, J. A., Robinson, O. C., & Demetre, J. (2017). Intrapersonal curiosity: Inquisitiveness about the inner self. Self and Identity, 16, 231–250.

Further Reading

  • Antonovsky, A. (1987) Unraveling the mystery of health: How people manage stress and stay well. The Jossey-Bass social and behavioral science series and the Jossey-Bass health series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Carlson, E. N. (2013). Overcoming the barriers to self-knowledge: Mindfulness as a path to seeing yourself as you really are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 173–186.
  • Conrad, P., & Barker, K. K. (2010). The social construction of illness: Key insights and policy implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, 67–79.
  • Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 793–814.
  • Reblin, M., & Uchino, B. N. (2008). Social and emotional support and its implication for health. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 21, 201.
  • Robinson, O. C. (2015). Emerging adulthood, early adulthood and quarter-life crisis: Updating Erikson for the twenty-first century. In R. Žukauskienė (Ed.), Emerging adulthood in a European context (pp. 17–30). New York: Routledge.
  • Rook, K. S. (2015). Social networks in later life: Weighing positive and negative effects on health and well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 45–51.
  • Schulman-Green, D., et al. (2012). Processes of self-management in chronic illness. Journal of Nursing Scholarship: An Official Publication of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing/Sigma Theta Tau, 44, 136–144.
  • Stevens, R. (2008). Erik Erikson. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Stowell, J. R., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (2001). Perceived stress and cellular immunity: When coping counts. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 323–339.
  • Tennen, H., Affleck, G., & Armeli, S. (2000). A daily process approach to coping: Linking theory, research, and practice. American Psychologist, 55, 626–636.
  • Torges, C. M., Stewart, A. J., & Duncan, L. E. (2009). Appreciating life’s complexities: Assessing narrative ego integrity in late midlife. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 66–74.
  • Uchino, B. N. (2006). Social support and health: A review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 377–387.


  • Afifi, W. A., Dillow, M. R., & Morse, C. (2004). Examining predictors and consequences of information seeking in close relationships. Personal Relationships, 11, 429–449.
  • Afifi, W. A., & Weiner, J. L. (2004). Toward a theory of motivated information management. Communication Theory, 14, 167–190.
  • Afifi, W. A., & Weiner, J. L. (2006). Seeking information about sexual health: Applying the theory of motivated information management. Human Communication Research, 32, 35–57.
  • Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28, 117–148
  • Barlow, D. H. (2010). Negative effects from psychological treatments: A perspective. American Psychologist, 65, 13–20.
  • Beebe, J. (2013). Weakness of will, reasonability, and compulsion. Synthese, 190, 4077–4093.
  • Beckjord, E. B., Rutten, L. J. F., Arora, N. K., Moser, R. P., & Bradford, B. W. (2008). Information processing and negative affect: Evidence from the 2003 Health Information National Trends Survey. Health Psychology, 27, 249–257.
  • Berlyne, D. E. (1966). Curiosity and exploration. Science, 153, 25–33.
  • Cameron, L. D. (2008). Illness risk representations and motivations to engage in protective behavior: The case of skin cancer risk. Psychology and Health, 23, 91–112.
  • Cameron, L. D., & Reeve, J. (2006). Risk perceptions, worry, and attitudes about genetic testing for breast cancer susceptibility. Psychology and Health, 21, 211–230.
  • Campbell, J. D., Assanand, S., & DiPaula, A. (2003). The structure of the self-concept and its relations to psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality, 71, 115–140.
  • Carlson, E. N. (2013). Overcoming the barriers to self-knowledge: Mindfulness as a path to seeing yourself as you really are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 173–186.
  • Carroll, P. J., Arkin, R. M., & Shade, C. K. (2011). Possible selves and self-doubt: A poverty of desired possibility. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 190–198.
  • Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267–283.
  • Carver, C. S., & Vargas, S. (2011). Stress, coping and health. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of health psychology (pp. 162–188). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Chesney, M., & Darbes, L. (1998). Social support and heart disease in women: Implications for intervention. In K. Orth-Gomer, M. Chesney, & N. K. Wenger (Eds.), Women, stress, and heart disease (pp. 165–182). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Conley, T. D., Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., Cole, S. W., & Visscher, B. (1999). Psychological sequelae of avoiding HIV-serostatus information. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 81–90.
  • Connor, R. C., & Connor, D. B. (2003). Predicting hopelessness and psychological distress: The role of perfectionism and coping. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50, 362–372.
  • Dugas, M. J., Freeston, M. H., & Ladouceur, R. (1997). Intolerance of uncertainty and problem orientation in worry. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 21, 593–606.
  • Dugas, M. J., Gagnon, F., Ladouceur, R., & Freeston, M. H. (1998). Generalized anxiety disorder: A preliminary test of a conceptual model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 215–226.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Erikson, E. H., & Erikson, J. H. (1997). The life cycle completed: Extended version with new chapters on the ninth stage of development. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Feltwell, A. K., & Rees, C. E. (2004). The information-seeking behaviours of partners of men with prostate cancer: A qualitative pilot study. Patient Education and Counseling, 54, 179–185.
  • Folkman S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middle-aged community sample. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 21, 219–239.
  • Folkman S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1985). If it changes it must be a process: Study of emotion and coping during three stages of a college examination. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 48, 150–170.
  • Glaser, R., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2005). Stress-induced immune dysfunction: Implications for health. Nature Reviews Immunology, 5, 243–251.
  • Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213–218.
  • Kashdan, T. B., Elhai, J. D., & Breen, W. E. (2007). Social anxiety and disinhibition: An analysis of curiosity and social rank appraisals, approach–avoidance conflicts, and disruptive risk-taking behavior. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22, 925–939.
  • Kashdan, T. B., & Roberts, J. E. (2006). Affective outcomes in superficial and intimate interactions: Roles of social anxiety and curiosity. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 140–167.
  • Khawaja, N. G., & Chapman, D. (2007). Cognitive predictors of worry in a non-clinical population. Clinical Psychologist, 11, 24–32.
  • Krohne, H. W. (1993). Attention and avoidance: Two central strategies in coping with aversiveness. In H. W. Krohne (Ed.), Attention and avoidance: Strategies in coping with aversiveness (pp. 3–15). Toronto: Hogrefe & Huber.
  • Ladouceur, R., Gosselin, P., & Dugas, M. J. (2000). Experimental manipulation of intolerance of uncertainty: A study of a theoretical model of worry. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 933–941.
  • Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to the emotions: A history of a changing outlook. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 1–21.
  • Levinson, D. J. (1996). The seasons of a woman’s life. New York: Ballantine.
  • Litman, J. A. (2006). The COPE inventory: Dimensionality and relationships with approach-and avoidance-motives and positive and negative traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 273–284.
  • Litman, J. A. (2008). Interest and deprivation dimensions of epistemic curiosity. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1585–1595.
  • Litman, J. A., & Lunsford, G. D. (2009). Frequency of use and impact of coping strategies assessed by the COPE inventory and their relationships to post-event health and well-being. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 1–10.
  • Litman, J. A., & Lunsford, G. D. (2010). Incurious motives to seek information about potential threats. European Journal of Personality, 24, 1–17.
  • Litman, J. A., Robinson, O. C., & Demetre, J. (2017). Intrapersonal curiosity: Inquisitiveness about the inner self. Self and Identity, 16, 231–250.
  • Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 75–98.
  • Marcia, J. E. (1993). The ego identity status approach to ego identity. In J. E. Marcia, A. S. Waterman, D. R. Matteson, S. L. Archer, & J. L. Orlofsky (Eds.), Ego identity: A handbook for psychosocial research (pp. 1–21). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2005). Anxiety as an “epistemic” emotion: An uncertainty theory of anxiety. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 18, 291–319.
  • Park, C. L., Cohen, L. H., & Murch, R. L. (1996). Assessment and prediction of stress-related growth. Journal of Personality, 64, 71–105.
  • Renner, B. (2006). Curiosity about people. Journal of Personality Assessment, 87, 305–316.
  • Robichaud, M., & Dugas, M. J. (2005). Negative problem orientation (part II): Construct validity and specificity to worry. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 403–412.
  • Robinson, O. C., Demetre, J., & Litman, J. A. (2016). Adult life stage and crisis as predictors of curiosity and authenticity: Testing inferences from Erikson’s lifespan theory. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 40.
  • Robinson, O. C., & Smith, J. A. (2010). The stormy search for self in early adulthood: Developmental crisis and the dissolution of dysfunctional personae. The Humanistic Psychologist, 38, 120–145.
  • Robinson, O. C., & Stell, A. (2015). Later life crisis: Towards a holistic model. Journal of Adult Development, 22, 38–49.
  • Robinson, O. C., & Wright, G. R. T. (2013). The prevalence, types and perceived outcomes of crisis episodes in early adulthood and midlife: A structured retrospective-autobiographical study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 37, 407–416.
  • Rodin, J., & Langer, E. J. (1977). Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 897–902.
  • Sexton, K. A., & Dugas, M. J. (2008). The Cognitive Avoidance Questionnaire: Validation of the English translation. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22, 355–370.
  • Sexton, K. A., & Dugas, M. J. (2009). An investigation of the factors leading to cognitive avoidance in worry. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33, 150–162.
  • Slaikeu, K. A. (1990). Crisis intervention: A handbook for practice and research (2d ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Spielberger, C. D., Vagg, P. R., & Wasala, C. F. (2003). Occupational stress: Job pressures and lack of support. In J. C. Quick & L. E. Tetrick (Eds.), Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 185–200). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
  • Weinstein, N. D. (1987). Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: Conclusions from a community-wide sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 10, 481–500.
  • Weinstein, N. D, & Lyon, J. E. (1999). Mindset, optimistic bias about personal risk and health protective behaviour. British Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 289–300.
  • Weinstein, N. D., & Sandman, P. M. (1992). A model of the precaution adoption process: Evidence from home radon testing. Health Psychology, 11, 170–180.