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Interest and learning consolidation: Behavioural, neurological, and metacognitive analyses

Final Report Summary - INTEREST AND MEMORY (Interest and learning consolidation: Behavioural, neurological, and metacognitive analyses)

Interest (or intrinsic interest) is a critical motivational factor, both in education and in the workplace. Interest can be conceptualized as a cognitive or affective willingness to engage in a specific activity in the absence of any extrinsic incentives. The importance of nurturing interest in classrooms or the workplace has been repeatedly emphasized in the literature, but how does interest promote our learning? The purpose of this project is to examine the benefit of interest on people’s learning from three different perspectives: (1) memory, (2) neural correlates, and (3) metacognition. For the 4-year grant period, I conducted a number of studies addressing each of the perspectives.

(1) Memory
We first conducted a large online experiment (N > 1,600) where we established a large trivia question database and examined how people’s interest predicts long-term memory performance. The results showed that people exhibited better long-lasting memory performance for the answers of trivia questions that induced people’s curiosity than those that did not, and that this memory enhancement effect of curiosity was mediated by people’s increased interest after knowing the answer. We replicated these findings with older adults (who typically show impaired memory performance), demonstrating the generalizability and practical implications of the findings. In addition, another follow-up study with video games showed that interest benefits memory performance even for the learning materials that are irrelevant to the stimuli that induce curiosity (i.e. hidden benefit of interest).

(2) Neural correlates
We conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to examine the neural correlates of interest. We especially focused on the role of task difficulty since interest can be conceptualized as motivation to work on a challenging task without extrinsic incentives. Our results showed that the ventral striatum was activated when participants were presented with a difficult task without monetary rewards. When participants were offered performance-based rewards, the same brain areas were activated for a less challenging (but not very easy) task. These findings indicate that (a) people are basically interested in working on a difficult task but this preference for challenge is reduced when extrinsic incentives are introduced, and (b) people’s intrinsic motivation for challenge may be represented in the ventral striatum in the brain.

(3) Metacognition
We conducted a series of survey and experimental studies to understand people’s metacognition about interest. We found that (a) people firmly, but wrongly believe that interest would be boosted by giving extrinsic incentives (e.g. monetary rewards), and (b) people tend to underestimate our power of interest to work on a task without extrinsic incentives. We proposed to call such metacognition about motivation metamotivation, and argued that inaccurate metamotivation observed in our research may lead people to endorse maladaptive motivational strategies, despite their well-meant intentions of enhancing motivation.

I have also been successful in developing a research career at the current institution, establishing “Motivation Science Laboratory”, which currently consists of a number of Ph. D. students, postdocs, and research assistants. The group has been expanding, and we started working on other new projects related to the topic of human interest.