A new experiment has revealed that a curious mindset helps to improve memory more than having a high-pressure mentality.

The study saw one group of people told to imagine that they were a thief visiting a virtual art museum in readiness for a heist, while the second group were told they were carrying out the theft at that moment.

The first group were found to be better at recalling the paintings they saw in the computer game compared to those who imagined they were carrying out the heist then and there.

These differences in motivation – urgent goal-seeking in the moment or curiosity ahead of a future goal – could play a role in meeting real challenges, such as climate change action or even the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

While the urgent, immediate mindset could be harnessed for situations that need short-term focus, such as encouraging people to vaccinate against COVID-19, a more stressful mindset may not work as well.

Dr Alyssa Sinclair, a postdoctoral researcher from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, said: “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.”

The study involved 420 people who were tasked with imagining themselves as art thieves. They were divided into two groups and given different back stories.

Dr Sinclair explained: “For the urgent group, we told them, ‘You’re a master thief, you’re doing the heist right now. Steal as much as you can!’

“Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”

Both groups played a computer game in the same way. They explored an art museum with four different rooms. Each room contained different paintings with their different values on display. The players gained real money bonuses if they found the higher-value paintings.

The next day, the two groups completed a questionnaire which challenged them to recognise 175 paintings – 100 from the game and 75 new ones. They were also asked if they could recall the value of the paintings they recognised.

Dr Sincalir said: “The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day. They correctly recognised 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.”

However, the ‘urgent’ group did appear to have a different advantage. The results showed they were better at working out where the more expensive paintings were.

The findings prompted the study authors to say: “It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically.”

Now the team is looking at how the findings could help shape approaches to psychotherapy, through thought exercises or “psychological manoeuvres”.

Read the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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