Can Interest Be Created? A Few Philosophical Reflections
Recently, I wrote a blog post on the interest development theory of human motivation. This theory is particularly interesting, because it puts most of its stress on the role interest plays in creating and sustaining motivation. But it does not seem to be a well-known theory (especially compared to the much more popular self-determination theory). One possible reason for that may be that when teachers, coaches, and others learn about theories of motivation, there is a belief that one should focus on factors you (the teacher or coach) can affect, like how much autonomy you give students, or what kind of incentives you use. By contrast, many people believe that interest in fixed: you either have it or you don’t; since it can’t be created, people may fear that focusing on interest as a motivator means that you focus on something you can’t affect in students.
Proponents of interest development theory seem to want to change that. Some, like Hidi and Renninger, suggest that interest can actually be affected by teachers, and that it isn’t as simple as “students have it or they don’t.” They suggest the “have it or you don’t” misconceptions “owe their origin to vocational interest research that shows the stability of existing interests.” In other words, some studies show that if John is interested in pastel painting this year, it is almost certain that he retains an interest next year and does not suddenly “switch” his interest to jazz drumming. But, as they point out, these studies don’t track how interests were either created or discovered.
Another contributor to the “you have it or you don’t” idea is that many studies show that “both the affective and cognitive components of interest have biological roots.” When we think biology, we think “fixed.” But other studies show that “interest is the outcome of an interaction between a person and a particular content.” That means that the potential for interest may be in the person, but the development of interest is contextual and often depends on factors outside the person.
So can interest be created, or is it fixed? When one develops an interest, was that interest created or was it discovered?
When I was a teenager, my parents made me choose at least one extra-curricular activity. I chose the drum set, partly because I was attracted to the idea of drumming, but partly, I thought it would be easier than choosing a sport to play. This ignited an interest in me, and I fell in love with practicing and playing, even following that interest to Berklee College of Music. After school was over and I was looking for work as a musician, I worked in a bookstore and discovered that i liked to read, and oddly enough, discovered that I liked to read works of philosophy and intellectual subjects (my first philosophy book was Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, which I’m not sure I understood but was highly intrigued by.) Like the drum set, I followed my interest in reading and thinking to graduate school. (This interest was all the more odd because I was never interested in academics while I was in k-12 school, always the average student who got by.)
Were my interests discovered or were they created? It is hard to say they were discovered, if only because I can’t imagine what it means to have an interest in the drum set before one has ever been introduced to doing something with music. which i always gravitated to. I also thought it might be easier than playing a sport.. It would be strange to say that before I started drumming or was presented with the option of drumming as a hobby, that I was interested in drumming. The best we can say is that I had an interest in music, but developing an interest in drumming is narrower than having an interest in music.
The same may be said for my post-bachelors interest in academics, reading, and thinking. If I had a yet-to-be-discovered interest in academic stuff, one would think I’d have had an inkling of it in k-12. One could argue, of course, that k-12 does a poor job at nurturing children’s interests, but how hard is it to imagine that for 13 years of schooling (really 17 if you count my baccalaureate education) I had a latent interest in academics that was never adequately discovered? It seems more likely that an interest had been created.
But if interests are created, there is a temptation to think that any interest can be created in any person. But like Hidi and Renninger write, interest is always an interaction between a person and an environment. It may be that a person has certain very broad predispositions (domains they may be drawn to) and interests can only be developed in those domains, but what specifically catches someone’s interest in any domain is partially due to environmental factors. So, I had a broad interest in music from early childhood, and my interest in drumming may have been a confluence of my broad attraction to music combined with situational factors (one of my first drumming activities was to join marching band, and that helped nurture an interest, partly because I was surrounded by people with a passion for band, etc).
When I think of interest being created, I think about movie advertisements. A person might see an advertisement for a movie they did not know existed, with a plot they didn’t know about and didn’t care about. But once the advertisement is shown, the person cares about the plot and story, and has an interest in seeing the movie. It may well be that the person had a broad taste for movies like the one in the advertisement, but the interest in the movie must have been induced by a combination of the person’s taste in films, and the advertisement’s ability to catch that broad interest. But there are also advertisements for movies that fail to catch our interests, some because the advertisement failed to get our attention or got our attention but didn’t convince us that the movie is worth our interest (environmental factors) or because the movie is not in the genre we have a broad interest in (personal factor).
So, whether interests are created or discovered is a hard question, maybe because the answer is a bit of both. I have an innate attraction to broad domains, but an interest within that domain can be created. I suppose the larger question is whether it can be the case where someone is interested in a certain broad domain but that interest extinguishes for an interest in another domain. In other words, maybe the true test is not whether an interest in doing math can be created, but whether it can be created in a person who has never shown any interest in math, even after repeated exposure. That seems the kind of question teachers would most care about, because they often deal with students who have no interest in the subject they teach. In those situations, the question is less whether the the interest of people attracted to that subject was created or discovered, but whether someone who seems to have no interest in the subject can be led to an interest in that subject.