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Psychology of Interest

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(Latin interest; Fr. intérêt; Germ. interesse). The mental state called interest has received much attention in recent psychological literature. This is largely due to the German philosopher Herbart. The important position he has won for it in the theory of education makes it deserving of some treatment in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Psychologists have disputed as to the exact meaning to be assigned to the term and the precise nature of the mental state.

Psychology of interest

Interest has been variously defined as a kind of consciousness accompanying and stimulating attention, a feeling pleasant or painful directing attention--the pleasurable or painful aspect of a process of attention--and as identical with attention itself. Thus it may be said, I attend to what interest. me; and, again, that to be interested and to attend are identical. The term interest is used also to indicate a permanent mental disposition. Thus I may have an interest in certain subjects, though they are not an object of my present attention. However interest be defined, and whether it be described as a cause of attention, an aspect of attention, or as identical with attention, its special significance lies in its intimate connection with the mental activity of attention. Attention may be defined as cognitive or intellectual energy directed towards any object. It is essentially selective, it concentrates consciousness on part of the field of mental vision, whilst it ignores other parts. Attention is also purposive in character. It focuses our mental gaze in order to attain a clearer and more distinct view. It results in a deeper and more lasting impression, and therefore plays a vital part both in each cognitive act and in the growth of knowledge as a whole. The English Associationist school of psychology and most Empiricists, in treating of the genesis of knowledge, seem to look on the intensity or frequency of the stimulus as the most influential factor in the process of cognition. As a matter of fact, what the mind takes in depends almost entirely on this selective action of attention.

Out of the total mass of impressions, streaming in at any moment through the various channels of sense, it is only those to which attention is directed that rise to the level of intellectual life, or take real hold of the mind. What these are will be determined by interest. We are interested in what is connected with our past experience, especially in what is partly new, yet partly familiar. Pleasant feelings and painful feelings are original excitants of attention; there are other experiences also--neutral perhaps in themselves, but associated with these latter--which generate fear or hope, and so become interesting. Though our attention may be temporarily attracted by any sudden shock or unexpected impression of unusual intensity, we do not speak of this as interesting, and our attention soon wanes. Isolated experiences, except in so far as they may stimulate the intellect to seek to correlate them with some previous cognitions, do not easily hold the mind. Repeated efforts are required to keep our attention fixed on an unfamiliar branch of study (as e.g. a new language or science). But in proportion as each successive act of observation or understanding leaves a deposit in the form of an idea in the memory, ready to be awakened by partially similar experiences in the future, there as gradually built up in the mind a group or system of ideas constituting our abiding knowledge of the subject. Such series of experiences, with the group of ideas thus deposited in the memory, render similar acts of cognition easy and agreeable in the future. In fact they develop a kind of appetite for future related experiences, which are henceforth assimilated, or, in Herbartian language, apperceived, with facility and satisfaction. The latent group of ideas bearing in any topic constitute an interest in the sense of a permanent disposition of the mind, whilst the feeling of the process of apperception, or assimilation, is interest viewed as a form of actual consciousness. But an event of a bizarre or novel character, which we may find difficulty in comprehending or assimilating with past experience, may also fascinate our mind. The strange, the horrible, may thus awaken at least temporarily a keen, if morbid, interest. Still, in so far as such experiences may excite fear or anxiety, they come under the general principle that interest is associated with personal pleasure or pain.

Broadly speaking, then, all those things which arouse or sustain non-voluntary or spontaneous attention are interesting whilst phenomena to which we can attend only with voluntary effort are uninteresting. The child is interested in its food and its play, also in any operations associated with pleasure or pain in the past. The boy is interested in his games, in those exercises which he has come to connect with his own well-being, and in branches of study which have already effected such a lodgment in the mind that new ideas and items of information are readily assimilated and associated with what has gone before. Men are interested in those subjects which have become interwoven and connected with the main occupations of their lives.


The psychology of interest being thus understood, its capital importance in the work of education becomes obvious. It is in his insistence on the value of this mental and moral force, and his systematic treatment of it in application to the business of teaching that Herbart's chief importance as an educationist lies. In proportion as the teacher can awaken and sustain the interest of the pupil, so much greater will be the facility, the rapidity and the tenacity of the mental acquisition of the latter. It must be admitted that, in beginning most branches of knowledge, a number of "dry" facts, which possess little interest of themselves for the child, have usually to be learned by sheer labour. The spontaneous attention of the pupil will not fix on and adhere with satisfaction to the ideas presented in the opening pages of a text-book. Here the teacher is compelled to demand the effort of voluntary attention, even though it be not pleasant, on the part of the pupil. Still, he will wisely do his utmost to make some of the future utility of the immediate labour intelligible to the student, and in this way attach mediate interest to that which is dull and unattractive in itself. Moreover, as the protracted effort of attention to what is in itself uninteresting is fatiguing, he will keep the lessons in these subjects short at first, and vary the monotony by enlivening and useful bite of information, illustrations, comments, and the like, which will afford relief and rest between the attacks on the substance of the lesson. At this stage the master aims at being an interesting teacher; he cannot as yet make his subject interesting, which, however, should be his ultimate goal.

But, as the student advances, there is being formed in his mind an increasing group of cognitions, a growing mass of ideas about this branch of study, which makes the entrance of each new idea connected with it easier and more welcome. There is a feeling of satisfaction as each new item fits into the old, and is assimilated or "apperceived" by the latter. The pupil begins to feel that the ideas he already possesses give him a certain power to understand and manipulate the subject of his study. He has become conscious of an extension of this power with each enlargement of his knowledge, and the desire for more knowledge begins to manifest itself. Here we have apperceptive attention or immediate interest. To generate this immediate interest in the subject itself being a main object of the teacher, this purpose should determine his exposition of the subject as a whole, and also guide him in dealing with the student from day to day. His exposition should be orderly, proceeding logically with proper divisions: the more important principles or ideas should be firmly fixed by repetition, the subdivisions located in their proper places, and their connection with the heads under which they fall made clear. By this means the ideas about the subject introduced into the mind of the pupil are built up into a rational or organized system. This secures greater command of what is already known, as well as greater facility in the reception of further knowledge, and so expedites the growth of interest. But besides this orderliness of exposition in the treatment of the matter, which might be formal and lifeless, the teacher must be continually adapting his instruction to the present condition of the pupil's mind. He must constantly keep in view what ideas the student has already acquired. He has to stir up the related set of ideas by judicious questions or repetitions, and excite the appetite of curiosity, when about to communicate further information; he has to show the connection and bind the new item with the previous knowledge by comparison, illustration, and explanation. Finally, he is to be alive to every opportunity to generalize, and to show how the new information may be applied by setting suitable exercises or problems to be worked out by the pupil himself. He thus leads the pupil to realize his increase of power, which is one of the most effective means of fostering active interest both in the subject itself and in the relation of its various parts with the whole.

Modern pedagogy, however, especially since Herbart, insists on the value of interest not only as a means, but as an educational end in itself. For the Herbartian school the aim of education should be the formation of a man of "many-sided interest". This is to be attained by the judicious cultivation of the various faculties intellectual, emotional, and moral--that is by the realization of man's entire being with all its aptitudes. It may be conceded that, with certain qualifications and reservations, there is a substantial amount of truth in this view. Worthy interest. ennoble and enrich human life both in point of dignity and happiness. The faculties, mental and physical, clamour for exercise; man's activities will find an outlet; the capacities of his soul are given to be realized. Ceteris paribus, one good test of the educational value of any branch of study, and of the efficiency of the method by which it has been taught, is to be found in the degree in which it becomes a permanent interest to the mind. The exercise of our mental powers on a subject, which has already created for itself a real interest, is accompanied by pleasure. A man's business or profession, when he is working independently for himself, should, and normally does, become a topic of keen interest. But, unless his life is to be very narrow and stinted, he should also have other interest.. His leisure hours require them. Wholesome intellectual, social, and æsthetic interest. are amongst the most effective agencies for overcoming the temptations to drink, gambling, and other degrading forms of amusement. The pressure of ennui and idleness will develop a most harmful discontent, unless the faculties find suitable employment. The man who, after a number of years devoted exclusively to the work of making money, retires from business in order to enjoy himself, is liable to find life almost insupportable through want of interesting occupation. A subject, respecting which the mind is in possession of an organized system of ideas, is necessary to man for the agreeable exercise of his faculties, and such an interest requires time for its growth. Although then it is erroneous to maintain that many-sided interest or culture, however rich and varied, constitutes morality or supplies for religion, still it may be readily acknowledged that a judicious equipment of worthy interest., intellectual, æsthetic, and social is a powerful ally in the battle with evil passions, and also one of the most precious elements of human well-being with which a wisely planned scheme of education can equip the human soul.

About this page

APA citation. Maher, M. (1910). Psychology of Interest. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Maher, Michael. "Psychology of Interest." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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