Beautiful Minds

Beautiful Minds

Insights into intelligence, creativity, and the mind

Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement


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 suggests, increase 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

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

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