What Makes Something Interesting?

Justin Wehr summarizes the research on "interest." According to one paper by Paul Silva he dug up, something is interesting if it is: a) new, complex, or unexpected, and b) comprehensible.

Silva's extrapolation for writers:

According to educational research, the largest predictors of a text’s interestingness are (a) a cluster of novelty–complexity variables (the material’s novelty, vividness, complexity, and surprisingness) and (b) a cluster of comprehension variables (coherence, concreteness, and ease of processing). Intuition tells us that we can make writing interesting by "spicing it up"; research reminds us that clarity, structure, and coherence enhance a reader’s interest, too.

Compound interest:

Interest motivates learning about something new and complex; once people understand the thing, it is not interesting anymore. The new knowledge, in turn, enables more things to be interesting. … In a sense, interest is self-propelling: It motivates people to learn, thereby giving them the knowledge needed to be interested.

This would suggest that sometimes you're not going to be interested in something right out of the gate — you first need to acquire some knowledge in the area, some experiences, some expertise. Map this to careers and you arrive at Cal Newport's view that you should try to generate passion at work, not find your passion.

You can be interested in things but not be happy:

Second, interest and happiness connect to different abstract dimensions of personality. Interest connects to openness to experience, a broad trait associated with curiosity, unconventionality, and creativity. Happiness, in contrast, connects to extraversion, a broad trait associated with positive emotions and gregariousness.


When I think about the people I most enjoy spending time with, they are high on two scales: interestingness and humor.

Here are Andy McKenzie's thoughts on the link between interest and the potential for a reward. Here's Andy on why happiness and sadness on are different dimensions.

15 comments on “What Makes Something Interesting?
  • “This would suggest that sometimes you’re not going to be interested in something right out of the gate — you first need to acquire some knowledge in the area, some experiences, some expertise. Map this to careers and you arrive at Cal Newport’s view that you should try to generate passion at work, not find your passion.”

    This tracks well with my experience. After an initial spike in interest upon first starting my job, I had a dip where I became frustrated by how complicated everything seemed. Now my interest is rising again as confusion dissipates and competence emerges.

    “Interest motivates learning about something new and complex; once people understand the thing, it is not interesting anymore. The new knowledge, in turn, enables more things to be interesting. … In a sense, interest is self-propelling: It motivates people to learn, thereby giving them the knowledge needed to be interested.”

    This applies well to romantic relationships, where experiences begin with novelty and excitement and, at the end of the life cycle, provide valuable new information for use in the next go around. The question there, though, is when do you decide that you’ve had enough interesting and settle into something that works.

  • I agree, I think it’s more spectral than binary. But the hard distinction is helpful for framing the issue.

    Paul Graham has a great essay on wisdom vs. intelligence (http://www.paulgraham.com/wisdom.html), and I think there’s some overlap there with Penelope’s idea about happy vs. interesting. I’ve got a post coming up tying them together.

  • In other words, things are interesting when they are both novel yet strangely familiar.

    It’s like when you meet a new person, yet it seems like you’ve known them forever.

  • I, a layman, was struck by the same thing in Silvia’s article and Wehr’s summary as Andy McKenzie– no mention of “how the expected reward of an activity correlates with its interestingness.”

    Andy writes about the relationship of ‘openness to experience’ and genetic locus, specifically the gene coding for a certain dopamine receptor.

    He refers to Sandy Gautam, who says:

    “No wonder creative people feel stiffed when on anti-psychotics– their dopamine levels are being brought down way too much.

    It seems that as dopamine levels increase the ability to narrow focus diminishes and this would be concordant with other studies linking dopamine to ADHD, for example.”

    I’m not getting this last statement by Gautam. How does it square with the use of psychostimulants like Adderall, which raise levels of dopamine in the brain, to treat ADHD?

    But I can attest to his assertion that creative people feel stiffed when on anti-psychotics. Having been reduced to near immobility by Thorazine injections, I know all too well the meaning of “thorazine shuffle”, as well as the internal torture of akathisia induced by Haldol.

    We could really make some social progress if the evolutionary psychologists and social constructionists found some common ground to work together through their differences.

    Society should be interested in discovering how schools can encourage the development of curiosity, the appetite for knowledge, in our children.

    This would seem to be imperative if it is true “that many animals spend much more time being curious than they spend fulfilling certain biological needs”.

    Lennart Sjöberg writes:

    “We may be hardwired to develop a lust for certain types of objects and activities. Genetic determination of part of the interest variance is a very real possibility.”

    I would propose that the Lexical Hypothesis, “the idea that the most salient and socially relevant personality differences in people’s lives will eventually become encoded into language”, has its analogue in evolutionary biology, as manifested, for example, in the expression of repeat alleles in polymorphism as a response to environmental pressures.

    Just think, we could raise whole generations of polymaths and Renaissance women and men.

    Well, so much cogitating and imagining is a strain on the brain, so I’ll take a break and indulge in that ubiquitous drug, Dammitall.;-)

  • Thanks for the comments, Vince. Agree that reward + curiosity should be studied more although quite possibly raising generations of polymaths will not come from academia. Instead it will likely come from tech that allows people to fulfill their curiosities and expand on to the next idea more quickly, and increase the speed of the feedback loops.

    I get wary when I see the words “more dopamine” because from what I understand the dopamine system is really complex and simply can’t be broken down like that. Shifts in the equilibrium have different effects in different parts of the brain (e.g. substantia nigra vs nucleus accumbens), what type of neuron it is affecting (e.g. inhibitory vs excitatory), what type of receptor it is affecting (e.g. D1 vs D2 receptors) and where precisely in the synapse / extracellular space the dopamine is being shifted to (e.g. more in synaptic cleft vs. more in terminal button). I wrote an essay on the effects of psychostimulants on D2 receptors that might be able to elucidate some of this complexity for one system. It’s about a year old and I too am just a student but I think it’s probably still fairly relevant: http://brainslab.wordpress.com/essays/the-effects-of-d2-receptors-on-the-inverted-u-shape-response-curve-to-psychostimulants/

  • Here’s a paragraph from something I wrote and published a few years ago…

    For research to be interesting, it must generally meet several criteria. The first
    requirement is that the research challenge existing assumptions in such a manner that, if true, causes an abundance of people to change their thinking or behavior. Put in the form of a question, “How much current thinking will have to be altered by how many people if the theory were true?” (Zaltman et al., 1982, p. 27) The second requirement for research to be interesting is that there be a practical value to its import. “If this practical consequence of a theory is not immediately apparent to its audience, they will respond to it by rejecting its value until someone
    can concretely demonstrate its utility” (Davis, 1971, p. 309).

    Davis, M. S. (1971). That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1, 309-344.

    Zaltman, G., LeMasters, K., & Heffring, M. (1982). Theory Construction in Marketing: Some
    Thoughts on Thinking. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

  • Thanks for your response, Andy, and for clearing up the question about dopamine levels increasing.

    I always enjoy your writing, and have just subscribed to Brains Lab. I look forward to digging into your archives.

    I like your approach to the noble mission of enabling our future geniuses to teach themselves.

    If the schools have computers and let the kids use them then tech will be integrated with their public education as a facilitator of information-gathering and feedback loops.

    I love your essay, and I’m still reading it, I just felt compelled to reply to your informative comment here right away.

    If you will forgive the boldness of a sincere student who defers to your knowledge, I think you meant muscarinic receptors rather than muscanaric receptors under the Ritalin heading.

    As you may guess, I have a special interest in amanita muscaria and its constituents muscarine and muscimol, and their action at the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors.;-)

    My apologies for misspelling Paul Silva’s name.

  • I see two dimensions of generating interest. The first dimension is to look back and think how the writer grew his interest in some topic. The second dimension is to convince himself regarding the depth of his probity, its adequacy in terms of quality and volume content; Then his ability to build a epistemological context case for mass appeal so that readers will have a fair degree of fun that the author had been through.

  • good post, Ben. thank you. These findings overlap with Chip and Dan Heath’s in MADE TO STICK, the best book I’ve encountered on the topic of storytelling and what makes something interesting. Also, this reminds me of design thinking’s quest for intuitive, simplicity (i.e. Apple products), on top of what is significant complexity. It takes a process to get there whether it’s an iPhone or book, but it’s a quest worth taking otherwise as you say the complexity will be lost on the audience…thanks again!

  • Plausible, but then they claim “Happiness connects to extraversion.” Really? I was just a week at an intensely interesting conference (Toward a Science of Consciousness) where I had a number of intense side-discussions with new and old friends. I also had several times of most intense happiness … when I was alone. Gregariousness, for me, connects well with interest. But happiness connects well with being alone.

    Could it be that it’s just the natural extraverts who are happiest in connection with that state? And what of profound interest in the most familiar of art and music, when it’s of a certain greatness to us?

    It’s not that news isn’t more interesting than non-news, nor that what we can understand isn’t more interesting than what seems nonsense or gibberish to us. But is too much being made of the conjunction of these truisms?

  • I can remember the stats, abilities, types, regions, habitats, body types, appearances, colors, egg groups, size, rarity, and temperament of over 718 pokemon- but I can’t even remember 15 things about the periodic table. 😛

    I wonder why that is? Exactly why is one more interesting than the other? This is what I want to know.

  • “Silva’s extrapolation for writers:”
    I read different comics. Some I found interesting, some I found not. And at the same time, quite often that when I found a comic boring, some other people said that comic is interesting. Why? This cannot be simply explained by (a) novelty–complexity and (b) comprehension variables. I think these are just superficial. There must be something more beyond these. (I just saw that Anon November 18, 2013 at 10:50 pm also made the same point)

    “Compound interest:……….. Interest motivates learning about something new and complex; once people understand the thing, it is not interesting anymore.”
    I often ruminate on some psychology topics even if I have already understood the topics in depth. I do not lost my interest even if I have already understood the things. In such cases, interest does not disappear once the thing is understood.

    Last paragraph and Whit Blauvelt April 19, 2010 at 10:48 am
    I think it is needed to be clarified that, what psychologist (especially those who are more specialized in the topic of “positive emotion”) have found is, extroversion is correlated with positive emotion, and introversion is correlated with negative emotion. Let me put it in this way: perhaps it is because some people are more sensitive in negative emotion, and these makes them to me more introverted (easier to have negative feeling, or born with a negative affective tone); and because some people are more sensitive in positive emotion, this makes them to be more extroverted. (easier to feel happy, or born with a positive affective tone)
    Some researches showed this correlation of “positive emotion – negative emotion vs extrovert – introvert”. Those researches were more than ten years ago. I don’t have time to find the sources. Just want to tell you. And I would also like to know what the latest researches say about this. (Psychologists have been weak at things about positive emotion. Hope they have got better now)

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