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Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Think back to a time when you were completely engaged in an activity. Maybe it was reading a comic book, or catching up with an old friend. Whatever it was, what do you remember about the experience? Are “effort” and “persistence” words you would use to describe the activity? Even though something technically got done (a comic book was read, a fruitful discussion ensued), it most likely felt effortless and enjoyable.

After interviewing people about their “peak experiences” —from rock climbers to chess masters to artists to scientists— psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found that people kept describing a state of intense concentration and absorption in which no mental resources were left over for distraction. In this state of flow, people felt in control of their consciousness, their inner critic disappeared, and time seemed to recede in the background. Importantly, the activity felt effortless.

The great educational philosopher John Dewey was one of the first to emphasize the important linkages among interest, curiosity, and effort. Dewey made the persuasive case that interest-based learning is more beneficial than effort-based learning. He noted that “willing attention” is more effective than “forced effort” because interest drives active learning: “If we can secure interest in a given set of facts or ideas we may be perfectly sure that the pupil will direct his energies toward mastering them.” In contrast, he noted, an education based on forcing children to expend energy unwillingly only results in a “character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been squeezed out.”

Many years of research support Dewey’s idea that interest facilitates learning, which Annie Murphy Paul nicely summarized in her recent post “The Power of Interest“. Contemporary psychologists– including Paul Silvia and Judith Harackiewicz– have found that interest is characterized by deep processing of information, effective learning strategies, academic and professional career choices and achievement, positive emotions, and a sense of being energized and invigorated. Also, when students are allowed to explore their interests and engage their natural curiosity, they expend more effort as an automatic consequence of their engagement.

If effort can come along for the ride with interest, perhaps interest can replace the mental effort necessary to accomplish a task. Of course, characteristics such as self-control and persistence are important for getting a task done. But research shows that effort depletes the mental resources necessary to exert self-control. If interest can ward off the depleting effects of effort, or even, as some prior research suggestsincrease the mental fortitude to persevere amongst setbacks, then this would truly support Dewey’s case for an interest-based education (vs. an effort-based education).

Enter two new studies by Paul O’Keefe and Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia. They looked at two central components of interest: affect and value. Affect relates to an emotional interest in the material and the feelings you experience when you’re involved in an enjoyable activity, such as absorption, fascination, and excitement. Value relates to personal interest in the material, and the importance of the activity to your life and identity. Research shows that both components are important for optimal learning. But how to they relate to effort?

In their first study, the researchers had college students create as many 4-,5-, and 6-letter words from a 10-letter word presented to them. For example, possible correct responses to TYPEWRITER include “type”, “write, and “pewter”. They assessed people’s emotional interest in the task beforehand by asking them to rate their agreement with statements such as “I really enjoy working on problems like this.”

They found that task performance was highest when emotional interest was high and the task was framed as personally significant to them (“The problems you will be working on have shown to be diagnostic of intellectual ability“). The students were never told that their intellectual ability was being assessed, so their worries about evaluation were minimized.

Crucially, the effects of emotional interest and personal significance remained even after taking into account persistence (time spent on task). This suggests that interested students did not perform well simply because they were more motivated to work longer on the task. Instead, emotional and personal interest seemed to be genuinely associated with efficient engagement, independent of persistence. The effects also remained after taking into account those with a drive to achieve as well as baseline levels of ability. These findings are consistent with other research showing that the state of inspiration facilitates efficiency and creativity of writing, even after taking into account ability and time on task.

In their second study, participants were asked to unscramble letter strings into a real English word (anagrams). Then participants had their self-control measured by squeezing a handgrip for as long as they were able while the experimenter timed them with a stopwatch. They found that high levels of emotional and personal interest were associated with the highest levels of anagram task  performance as well as self-control resources (they held the handgrip the longest).

Since amount of time spent on the task was held constant at 5 minutes, the finding wasn’t due to sheer persistence. Also, the effects remained after taking into account a motivation to achieve, perceived competence, positive emotions, and ability (anagram performance). Again, interest drove efficient engagement, not merely effort.

Interestingly, emotional interest without accompanying personal interest was associated with lower anagram performance. The researchers speculate that just having high emotional interest may put you into a broad, exploratory frame of mind where your goal is just to engage, not necessarily perform well. In contrast, when emotional interest is joined with personal interest, attention becomes more narrowed, focused, and determined. They argue that this emotional-personal combination is reminiscent of the flow state, and is most conducive to optimal performance.

Taken together, the researchers conclude that “interest not only guides goal-related behaviors, but also aids in their management” and that “the costs of effort may be offset or buffered against if one has a strong affective interest in the goal being pursued and if it is personally significant.”

There are important implications. For educators and business managers who value deep, meaningful productivity, emphasis should be placed on cultivating emotional interest among students and employees, and increasing the personal relevance of learning and projects.

In addition to taking individual interests into account, there are ways of making material inherently more interesting to people. Paul Silvia suggests that material that is novel, complex, and comprehensible are more interesting to students (also see 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential). And as Annie Murphy Paul points out, it’s important to start a “virtuous cycle” by making sure that students have the sufficient background knowledge to stimulate interest and make sure the information is comprehensible.

I would add that it’s also important to take into account pre-existing individual differences in cognitive ability (e.g., spatial, math, verbal, etc.) and personality (e.g., intellectual curiosity, openness to experience, neuroticism, etc.). Many students may have the interest but the material is too easy or shallow for their current level of ability and/or curiosity. Indeed, one large survey found that 33% of students said they were bored in school not because school was too easy for them, but because it wasn’t challenging enough.

Dewey pointed out the implications of an interest-based education over a 100 years ago:

“The debate about effort versus interest has important educational implications. Our whole policy of compulsory education rises or falls with our ability to make school life an interesting and absorbing experience to the child. In one sense there is no such thing as compulsory education. We can have compulsory physical attendance at school; but education comes only though willing attention to and participation in school activities. It follows that the teacher must select these activities with reference to the child’s interests, powers, and capabilities.”

The results also have implications for anyone with a long-term goal. Grit and persistence are undoubtedly important as we journey from our dreams to reality. There are inevitable setbacks, and not every step of the way is paved with tasks we find enjoyable and effortless. Nevertheless, the results of the current study suggest that choosing a goal that is both emotionally interesting and which you find personally meaningful goes a long way to alleviating some of the mental burden required to realize your dreams.

© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Paul O’Keefe for discussing his study with me, and for his general awesomeness as a friend and colleague.

Image credit: istockphoto

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. string_beery 5:07 pm 03/6/2014

    thanks for the article…
    I can hardly doubt that children, or anyone really, would have improved learning experiences and outcomes if they are interested in the material offered…but I find it much more difficult to imagine exactly how a school teacher might generate that interest consistently, in the face of a classroom of disparate souls, with disparate interests, none of whom are voluntarily present, and some or most of whom likely have their minds ‘elsewhere’…add in not-uncommon problems like poor nourishment, home environments that are not supportive of education, etc. etc. and the task seems all but impossible…
    schools are primarily daycare institutions – significant education happens mainly with the relative few who manage to find motivation, somehow, somewhere…changing that fact will require major efforts including, but going far beyond, the classroom teacher…

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  2. 2. gs_chandy 1:07 am 03/16/2014

    I have just posted, to another discussion group (Math-teach @ Dresel), the following commenting on Mr Kaufman’s blog postin “Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement”:

    A recent posting in Scott Barry Kaufman’s ‘Beautiful Minds’ Blog titled “Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/2014/03/05/interest-fuels-effortless-engagement/) contains some profound insights into the nature of ‘learning motivation’ (in children and adults).

    I personally disagree with the word “Effortless” in the blog title. However, after some exploration of the subject on the Internet and in a couple of books, I haven’t been able to discover a better word in English to describe the kind of ‘engagement of mind’ being discussed by Mr Kaufman that could lead to what may be called ‘deep learning’.

    Perhaps English deserves a new word???

    In any case, here below are a couple of extracts from the blog post which deserve careful consideration (IMH0):

    ‘Peak learning’, according to the mind researchers that Kaufman interacted with, involves:
    QUOTE
    a state of intense concentration and absorption in which no mental resources were left over for distraction. In this state of flow, people felt in control of their consciousness, their inner critic disappeared, and time seemed to recede in the background. Importantly, the activity felt *effortless*. (*—*, italics in original).
    UNQUOTE
    (In the above context, at that point, the word “effortless” seems entirely appropriate [IMHO]).

    And again, Kaufman recalls some ideas from the late John Dewey:
    QUOTE
    “willing attention” is more effective than “forced effort” because interest drives active learning: “If we can secure interest in a given set of facts or ideas we may be perfectly sure that the pupil will direct his energies toward mastering them.” In contrast, he noted, an education based on forcing children to expend energy unwillingly only results in a “character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been squeezed out.”
    UNQUOTE

    The above arguments, if valid, should put to permanent rest the regressive ideas expressed by Robert Hansen:

    “Children must be PUSHED (or GOADED) to learn math!” (and doubtless everything else)

    I had suggested at the beginning of this post that the word “Effortless” in the title was incorrect. I stand by that suggestion, and believe that the researches described by Kaufman do indeed strongly support it. Also, as suggested, perhaps the English language deserves a new word?

    The fundamental concepts that should underlie all ‘teaching+learning’ are correctly articulated in what I have often suggested is an appropriate ‘philosophy for education’:

    “Children should be ENCOURAGED to learn. If the ENCOURAGEMENT is provided effectively, the learner will learn how to PUSH him-/herself (or even to GOAD him-/ herself to overcome the many barriers and difficulties that will surely be encountered during the learning process”.

    GSC

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