Sunday, November 17, 2013

Research Review: "Interest -- the Curious Emotion"

Inspired by Dan, I've been struggling to come up with a framework for what people find interesting. In making a list of all the things that I found interesting over the course of a day, I noticed that I tended to ask questions that were relatively easy to answer. This made me think that the ease of answering a question is a crucial factor in how interesting it is.

This morning, I'm reading some actual psychological research on this whole issue. This literature review is called "Interest -- the Curious Emotion," , and it's by Paul J. Silvia. Here are some highlights, lightly edited for blogability:
"In my research, I have suggested that interest comes from two appraisals. The first appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s novelty–complexity, which refers to evaluating an event as new, unexpected, complex, hard to process, surprising, mysterious, or obscure...The second, less obvious appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s comprehensibility."
In other words, whether we find something interesting is jointly determined by its newness and its comprehensibility. What's "comprehensibility"? It's a sense of whether a person has the "skills, knowledge, and resources to deal with an event."

Here's how he thinks his theory plays out in an art museum:
"Consider, for example, a group of college students meandering through the campus art museum. Some of the students find the modern-art gallery interesting: The works strike them as new, different, and unusual, and—thanks to a few classes in art history—they feel able to get what the artists are trying to express. But most of the students, such as the students forced to attend as part of a class assignment, do not find the modern-art gallery interesting. The works strike them as unusual but also meaningless and incomprehensible: They do not know enough about this art to find it interesting."
Silvia's "comprehensibility" is a lot like what I meant by "ease." If you push me, I would have to admit that the questions that I asked myself weren't all easy, but I had high confidence that I would be able to answer them. I'm happy to drop my "ease" for Silvia's "comprehensibility."

Has he done research in math? Yes he has:
"[Subjects] spent more time viewing complex polygons than they did viewing simple polygons."
Anyway, the paper's really worth checking out, and it's chock-full of citations to a really cool body of research. Here's one line worth remembering:
"New and comprehensible works are interesting; new and incomprehensible things are confusing."


  1. "New and comprehensible works are interesting; new and incomprehensible things are confusing."

    Taking this theory, it really interests me that our current system of grouping students by age or grade may be doing harm to their mathematical growth mindset as we move them from grade to grade, course to course without them having mastered (or at least become proficient with) the skills and concepts of previous grades or courses. I'm looking at elementary and middle school in particular, although I could make a case for high school courses as well, depending on how a teacher, school or district decides what is "passing." Now I understand that students will not (cannot?) master everything, but there should be core ideas that are prerequisites for the next stage of their mathematical journey, right?

    1. There are all sorts of problems with passing kids along without them mastering material, but I have a hard time imagining a better alternative in our current system. Perpetually holding kids back until they show mastery? That's just as likely to kill interest, as the material isn't new any more.

    2. "... a better alternative in our current system."

      This is my point. Should we be looking for better alternatives in the framework of our current system, or for a better system? The former, while still a challenge, requires less effort than the latter. But is it still lipstick on a pig?

  2. This made me think about BJ Fogg's Behavior Model ( which posits that behavior is a "product" of motivation, ability, and a trigger ("B = m * a * t" as he puts it). In considering how to elicit certain behavior -- and ideally, in a transferable or generalizable way -- for either students in a classroom, or educators in a professional development context, I have found myself wondering if pushing for more "ability" (basically, making the desired action more accessible) we also make it less worthwhile.

    1. Yeah, the dynamics of this stuff is really tricky.