The Power of Pettiness

Do you get annoyed when people repeat claims that you know aren’t true?

Do you feel the urge to correct them, even when you know it’s not important?

Do you feel ashamed when you realize you repeated a false claim or made a grammar error?

Do you habitually add disclaimers to your statements and still worry you might have said something technically wrong?

Do you ever wish you could just mellow out and not care?

Not so fast. For these emotions – pettiness and shame – are the engines driving epistemic progress. Curiosity is the emotion that motivates exploration for new information, as hunger motivates eating. Unfortunately, curiosity is seen as a cute and cuddly emotion, pleasant and smelling of old books. Here I model curiosity as a personal and social process consisting of four virtues: loneliness, ignorance, pettiness, and overconfidence.

Four Epistemic Virtues

Loneliness is, in part, an epistemic emotion. When people are lonely, part of what they want is information: about other people, about the world, about themselves. People use information to treat loneliness (television, books, letters, the internet). Some forms of loneliness can only be remedied by reaching out to others, to see if anyone can hear you. This is the first stage of curiosity.

So you send a desperate message in a bottle, and it usually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, ignored. But once in a while, communication happens. Pascal wrote a letter to Fermat, and together they created a scene and founded probability theory.

A scene is a zone of high epistemic productivity. Since people are creating together, they can divide their labor to explore efficiently, and check each other’s results. David Chapman says:

Before there is a subculture, there is a scene. A scene is a small group of creators who invent an exciting New Thing—a musical genre, a religious sect, a film animation technique, a political theory. Riffing off each other, they produce examples and variants, and share them for mutual enjoyment, generating positive energy.

Most importantly, a scene is a zone of shared ignorance. Ignorance is the self-renewing resource that allows curiosity to find expression. We are all extremely ignorant, but it’s much easier to see how ignorant someone else is, than to see the ways in which you yourself are ignorant. How do we shine a light on our own hidden ignorance – the wellspring of learning? In the second stage of curiosity, hidden ignorance is brought to light through an encounter with weirdness. Weirdness sometimes takes the pleasant form of comfy curiosity; at other times, the sensation is of the uncanny, of lostness, of finding yourself in a mess. Two things are necessary for weirdness: your model claims to know something, and it turns out to be wrong. The map doesn’t match the territory. It’s a frontier.

This is where the work begins. “Idle curiosity” ends here. In the third stage of curiosity, all kinds of emotions – pleasant and unpleasant – motivate exploration and scrupulosity. Pettiness is essentially treating something small as if it were important (especially a perceived personal slight). In the early stages of a scene of curiosity, when few people are working in the ignorance mines, the subject matter of the scene is clearly not seen as important by the wider culture; being inappropriately obsessed with the apparently trivial is a filter for working in a true scene.

If you’re the kind of person who gets enraged enough to investigate an innocent factoid that sounds too good to be true, tracking it to its dubious source like a predator, then you are in the middle of curiosity. But if you simply correct the error, or make a petty subtweet, all the energy will be dissipated. For curiosity to be realized, pettiness must be suppressed and transformed into energy, gleeful malevolence transformed to honorable ends.

Consider violence. “Passive-aggressive” is considered to be an insult, but it is a step up from violence. In passive aggression, or petty acts, a violent impulse is turned toward nonviolent conflict. The Colossus of Rhodes was a product of violence transformed:

In the late 4th century BC, Rhodes, allied with Ptolemy I of Egypt, prevented a mass invasion staged by their common enemy, Antigonus I Monophthalmus.

In 304 BC a relief force of ships sent by Ptolemy arrived, and Antigonus’s army abandoned the siege, leaving most of their siege equipment. To celebrate their victory, the Rhodians sold the equipment left behind for 300 talents and decided to use the money to build a colossal statue of their patron god, Helios.

The Rhodians pretty much beat swords into, not ploughshares, but a giant middle finger. The conflict is brought to a more symbolic level. The next stage is the transformation of passive aggression or pettiness into socially acceptable output that still satisfies the petty urge to be correct.

I include shame in the category of pettiness: worry that others will see one’s work and find fault. Like petty anger and vindictiveness, shame is a very unpleasant emotion. But like pettiness, it is motivating – but only if you suppress it. If you tweet “I’m garbage” three times a day, you might feel better, but you won’t be as motivated to pick apart your own work as if you were your own worst enemy.

Mellowing out, therefore, is a risky proposition. If you learn not to feel spite or petty rage or shame, you may feel better, but you may find that you lack the motivation to pursue arduous projects. The demons will leave you alone – which might be a relief.

Finally, curiosity accomplishes itself in the world through overconfidence. Within a zone of newly-discovered ignorance, there’s no way to know how much work will be required, and how much understanding will even be possible. Overconfidence motivates the exploration of territories about which there is very little information; curious people are more risk-seeking in terms of effort expended and ambition of projects. More of the territory is explored by overconfident explorers; coverage increases. Overconfidence (or grandiosity) is also more likely to leave a mark on the world. Overconfident, grandiose people want everyone to share their same beliefs. They spend more energy making sure their ideas filter out into the broader world. They make better, more understandable, more interesting compressions of their ideas that can be easily communicated. Meek people might have great ideas, but only a few people will ever hear them.

Curiosity refactored

Curiosity’s Ends

There is a character that has been missing so far in this story: the truth. Curiosity is about the truth, isn’t it?

In my model, curiosity is not a specific emotion driving a truth-focused process, but rather the small and fragile truth-focused intersection of four cognitive processes, none of which, on its own, is entirely concerned with truth. Maintaining consensus beliefs (rather than “true” beliefs), increasing status, ensuring belonging, and getting attention compete with “discovering the truth” as action motivators.

Here’s a major problem: the better you get at spotting hidden ignorance, the more you see ignorance and bullshit everywhere; you tend to lose the necessary overconfidence, the belief that you can figure things out. Your very tools turn to bullshit in your hands the closer you look at them. As you see more points of view within a scene, your ability to be horrified by wrongness decreases; the well of pettiness dries up. When you see your heroes making mistakes, you mellow out about the errors you’ve probably made. In other words, you grow up.

It’s hard to remain curious, because all the processes of curiosity tend to inhibit each other; a precarious balance must be struck. Being curious requires an emotional sacrifice. That is how group values are negotiated socially, and that is what makes curiosity a virtue.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Hmm, I’m not sure I buy this at all. To model curiosity in terms of loneliness, pettiness, ignorance, and overconfidence seems to entirely miss its essence, which I think is fundamentally not social at all, let alone understandable in terms of social virtues.

    Loneliness and pettiness are essentially social motivations. Ignorance and overconfidence the way you’ve modeled them, are also social (though they need not be; a solitary person on a desert island can be both without reference to other humans, but cannot be petty without another person present or l0nely without another person in mind). This feels a bit like a communitarian trying to legibilize and lay claim to one of the few aspects of the human condition that is arguably primarily individual and only occasionally communal. To treat it as essentially a social process is to miss much of it.

    You’re projecting fundamentally social motives/attitudes (pettiness, loneliness, shame) into a phenomenon that’s broader and what I’d call presocial and primarily (and I’d argue, usually only) a part of private experience that is not in the sharing zone.

    You can only label a concern petty or trivial if it has already been evaluated and socialized and the group (or your internalized superego of it) has a preliminary sense of its importance. The sine qua non of curiosity is attention devoted to things that have not yet been determined to be either trivial or profound, petty or grand. Things we can briefly enjoy on our own before the damn mob finds it and ruins it by valuing it and making meaning-sausage from it.

    It is revealing that you think curiosity “is seen as a cute and cuddly emotion” (I don’t see it as such, and many share my view that it’s a dangerous and subversive badass emotion and that people who think otherwise are living a sheltered life). You’re begging the question there. “Is seen as” in passive voice implies a collective perspective. Well of course you’ll find that it’s about your four virtues that mitigate cute-and-cuddly if you start there with a view of curiosity from those (highly social types) who don’t have much of it.

    It’s like starting with the astrologer’s theory that the stars completely determine our destinies and investigating stars with a view to proving them wrong. Sure you may find that the stars do NOT determine our fates by empirical tests, but that doesn’t mean stars are primarily about human fates.

    Curiousity that has a social epistemic context, like wondering what an uncool TV show is about, and watching it as a guilty pleasure, and not telling your cool friends…that might have those 4-virtues characteristics. Or curiosity about what a hated outgroup’s food tastes like. But I don’t see any such social aspects to most curiosity.

    You’re on a walk by yourself and see a weird kind of red bug you haven’t seen before. Wondering if it’s poisonous is fundamentally not a social cognition. You may use social means (Wikipedia, twitter, village elder) to satisfy your curiosity, but that’s a matter of convenience, not connection seeking. More importantly, you aren’t necessarily wondering about the bug because you’re looking for an excuse to connect with others (though you might be). You’re wondering about the bug because you’re wondering about the bug. Or a shiny pebble. Or a weirdly bright star. Or why the sea is boiling hot. And these are just examples that break into awareness. To be alive at all is to be constantly looking around, with your gaze lingering on novelty instinctively. It’s like breathing a basal metabolic cognitive process.

    I think what’s going on here is like the difference between being a criminal and being an outlaw. Or being low-caste vs being an outcaste. If valued in a social context they might be functionally the same. The murderer and pirate are both hanged. The lowborn and the outcaste are both denied access to the village well. But it takes a very inward-looking/socially-centered perspective to gloss over the critical difference that one thing is inside a socialized sphere of experience while the other is outside it.

    I think you’re conflating two fundamentally different things. One is a set of behaviors that displace or redirect social motives down less risky pathways. The other is a set of behaviors relating to engaging reality without social reality mediating.

    Yes Pascal and Fermat communicated and started a scene, but it’s a stretch to attribute their behaviors to loneliness, pettiness, overconfidence, or ignorance. Those perhaps played a role but are secondary considerations. The primary drive was arguably wondering about actual probability problems like dice rolls. Not to address the low social feeling of being ignorant among the wise, bit simply to figure it out.

    To compare that kind of thing to correcting grammar or the Colossus of Rhodes read as a middle finger in a conflict seems like a category error. It’s not even clear to me why you would think to analyze curiosity in those terms at all. Curiosity is about pettiness the way food is about Instagram. The response to “food is about Instagram” (== “curiosity is cute and cuddly”) is not “but Instagram is actually good” but “food is about eating. That we sometimes photograph and share pictures of it is peripheral to its essential nature”

    Perhaps what I’m resisting is the sense you’re trying to convey in the post that cognitively, material realities and our relationship to them are subservient to social realities. That are our curiosities are just instrumental means to social ends. No. Curiosity is a first-class citizen in the human condition that does not follow from our social natures. It’s the fifth postulate of the human condition, and there are non-Euclidean ways of being so to speak.

    Basically, stop trying to colonize nice solitary-existential curiosity you authoritarian high modernist communal meaning-making social colonizer.

    • Instinctively I harkened back to the essay on the Dead Curious Cat. It would seem that the argument here is Curiosity as Pain Avoidance/Seeking Alpha (avoiding loneliness, shame, etc.) as opposed to Curiosity as Seeking Pleasure/Getting Away. By extension Mellowing Out constitutes a form of Getting Along or Conserving Energy? Personally, I find Curiosity to be its own motivation. What I read here seems to be about how one may exploit said curiosity to Get Ahead.

      • Damn I’d totally forgotten that post. Clearly I’ve been pulling at this thread for a while. My position has changed quite a bit since, but not in a way that affects how I react to this post.

        Link for those who are curious: The dead curious cat and the joyless immortal.

        I need to write an update before Lex Luthor Sarah occupies this territory for the evil ritualists.

      • I’ll sort-of defend Sarah here by pointing out that part of your disagreement has to do with the subjective perception of curiosity vs. how it looks socially and how it functions in the context of dual inheritance gene/culture co-evolution. I read Sarah as trying to take an “objective” view on the evolution of her own curiosity and related social-intellectual motivations as she has gotten older and more experienced. Sarah now realizes that she was overconfident and didn’t understand as much as she thought she did. I’m guessing she is also riffing off of the “hacker virtues”, laziness, impatience and hubris. Once again, these take an outside view, re-conceptualizing something that (from the outside view) is a social irritant as being essential to the creative process.

        My preference would be to move on from how curiosity-driven behavior looks to others (or to yourself looking back over the years), and start to consider *how it works*. One jumping-off point is the idea of positive illusions.
        Hubris/overconfidence is most likely beneficial to the overall group because it supports risk-taking by individuals, and may also be more narrowly beneficial to the individual if they adopt it selectively (when pursuing a goal with sunk costs) or if they are just in a high-risk stage of life (young adulthood).

        r.e. Marc’s comment, yes, precisely! All human behavior exists in a context of potential individual/group conflict and social cooperation. All of our motivations and subjective experience are strongly shaped by the social needs to get along and get ahead, and the individual needs to stay alive and reproduce. Hardly anything we do can be uniquely placed as individual or social. Our individual experiences are hugely shaped by our ultra-social natures. If we were not inclined as a species to culturally accumulate knowledge and technology then I suspect that our curiosity would be much reduced.

    • Marc Hamann says

      Venkat, I think you are wrong to try to segregate individual “drives” as being social or individualistic. We experience all of our feelings and drives individually, but they can be expressed in different ways along the independence / social axis.

      All people need BOTH independence and society, even if different personalities weight them differently in their preoccupations. You can never really wall one off from the other. It is useful and illuminating to consider how the same drive might express itself through these various weightings.

      I’m not sure I “buy” the system that Sarah presents here either, but it is nonetheless an interesting attempt at “refactoring perception”.

  2. Jim Stone says

    Pettiness and overconfidence fit nicely with Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s “interactionist’ or “argumentative” view of reason (presented in “The Enigma of Reason”).

    On their view our natural tendency is to be lazy, biased, and overconfident when presenting our own reasons, and to be precise and petty when evaluating other people’s reasons.

    And they defend this as the proper function of reason. They claim that reason was not developed primarily for use in isolation. It was intended to be used in conversation. And groups come to better decisions and do so more efficiently when participants confidently produce biased reasons and then let other people pettily pick them apart than they would if we were all more reserved in our offerings and evaluations.

    So, when groups set out to explore for more information, when they engage in “group” curiosity projects, it seems to pay for its members to be a bit petty and overconfident.

    And perhaps there’s a useful distinction to be made here between participating in a group curiosity project, and enjoying the pure animal curiosity of a cat who’s found a butterfly.

    • Good point re asymmetry. I am being a bit petty in my comments on this thread for example 😂. There’s a there there here. Let’s call it the Medina of curiosity if not the Mecca.

      In Homo Ludens, Huizenga makes a powerful case for all culture as play, except for the play of children and animals. That sort of exclusion strikes me as eliminating the hardest case.

      With reason though, I can see a stronger case for it being primarily social. When we convince ourselves of the truth of theorems we often arrive by means of an intuitive argument that later turns out to be shaky or wrong. Reason in its rigorous form seems solidly a social process.

  3. Wow. Thanks

  4. Brendan Pramjee says

    Interesting post, and a good read. How much of this is based on any substantial research is in question