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That Is SO Interesting (Or Not) …

- February 17, 2008

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The other day I read an article because it looked interesting. That may seem to be true by definition, but in point of fact, in my professional capacity I read many articles even though they don’t look interesting. Anyway, as I was starting to read it, I asked myself why it looked interesting. And that was a very pertinent question, for the subject of the article was why things are interesting. So I was, in a manner of speaking, meta-interested.

The article (abstract here), by Paul Silvia, is a brief overview piece in the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. Here’s the gist of Silvia’s interpretation.

Interest is an emotion. Like other emotions, it involves physiological changes, facial and social expressions, patterns of cognitive appraisal, and subjective feelings. People differ, of course, in what they find interesting, and the same person is likely to differ over time in what he or she finds interesting. The existence of these inter- and intra-personal differences confounds attributions of interest to objective features of objects. That is, things aren’t just interesting or not. Rather, people appraise the meaning of things, and these appraisals produce emotions, including interest or (as depicted above) the lack thereof.

So far, so good, but what is it about these appraisals that causes interest? Silvia contends that it’s a compound of two elements. The first is one’s evaluation of an event’s novelty-complexity: Is it new, unexpected, complex, hard to process, surprising, mysterious, obscure? That seems obvious; if it’s none of the above, then it’s just the same old-same old, and unlikely to make us curious. Second, though, is the event’s potential comprehensibility, which involves considerations of whether one has the skills, knowledge, and resources to deal with the event. As Silvia puts it, “Concepts confusing to novices can be interesting to experts because experts feel able to understand them.” Thus, if something I consider new and surprising happens and if understanding it seems to fall within the realm of what I consider possible for me, I’m likely to find it interesting and worth pursuing. But if understanding it seems hopeless to me, I’m likely to set it aside and wait for something else to grab me. Or just to sleep.

All of which speaks to me about, among other things, the fragmentation of academic disciplines. As we pursue matters that our particular skill sets make us confident we’re capable of understanding, others, with different skill sets, move off in different directions, in a dynamic that just keeps on reinforcing itself. I think that’s interesting, though I grant that you may appraise it as old hat and not worth thinking about.