November 6, 2013

The Science of Interest

On Annie Murphy Paul's predictably interesting The Brillant Blog, there are two new posts about interest; about what it is, how it develops and what its consequences are (here and here). I'll try to summarize -and paraphrase, here and there- some of the things she writes but do visit her blog to read more.

Annie writes about the emerging science of interest which shows that, when we are interested, we process information better and deeper, we work harder and persist longer. So, when do we find things interesting? It seems that, in order to be interesting, things must be novel, complex and comprehensible. Once we are interested in something, our interest may autonomously grow and develop further because when we know something about our topic of interest, new information we come across may not fit well with what we know. Because we want to resolve the conflict between what we know and the new information, our interest is sustained.

So, how does interest begin? Research suggests that personal interests always begin by some external trigger. These triggers may be spontaneous events (like reading a book or hearing a song) but they may also be more or less deliberately created by parents or teachers. Making things interesting does not work by rewarding children for doing something (much research has shown that this is likely to undermine interest) or by stressing the future utility of the activity. Here are three strategies that do work:
  1. Ask: Instead of giving answers and explaining things, ask questions which focus attention on the gaps in one's knowledge. These information gaps are likely produce curiosity and strengthen interest. 
  2. Show: Demonstrate your own interest for the topic, for example, through casual conversations and hands-on demonstrations.
  3. Support: Support the other person's feelings of competence, provide help, encouragement, process feedback, etc. 

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