In education, what is this phenomenon called?
April 14, 2021 9:05 AM   Subscribe

What is the name given to the phenomenon whereby people become interested in a subject area as a result of direct experience. Or alternatively, people are not interested in learning about topics of which they have little or no experience.

Most people don’t have an interest in areas which they don’t have direct experience with. For example, I’m not really interested in the pyramids of Egypt. But if I were to spent a week’s holiday in Egypt and saw them first hand, it would be different. My brain would be all fired up trying to find out everything possible about not only the pyramids but also ancient Egyptian life. Likewise, I’m not really interested in the human skeleton works. However, if I broke my arm in the morning, my brain would be starving for more information about the ulna and radius bones and how bones heal. But, in educational theory, what is this phenomenon called? And, who has written about it?
posted by jacobean to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: the mere-exposure effect sounds like what you're looking for.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 9:24 AM on April 14

Best answer: There might be other terms out there that are used for this, but the word that comes to mind is "salience".

There's also significant discussion of applicability in andragogy (education for adult learners), especially related to self-directed learning. Knowles was the originator of andragogy and I've had numerous textbooks by Sharan B. Merriam on the overview of related principles and theory.
posted by past unusual at 9:33 AM on April 14 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A discussion of the salience bias.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:19 AM on April 14 [3 favorites]

An ex and I used to joke* "You've got it so you study it."

*: ...about her psychology department -- my civil engineering department not so much.
posted by k3ninho at 10:46 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]

I'm not really sure I'd call this a bias as much as "how humans work by default". There are a vast array of things we could learn about about at any point. Salience is a good word, it describes how humans decide which things are important.

Another place to start in Psychology is "schema activation" which is the process where something (like an experience or memory) makes us think about a specific context, and then we start investigating related areas. If you never interact with a specific field or learn about it from something related, there's no schema to activate so you will never think or care about it.
posted by JZig at 11:24 AM on April 14

In the psych departments I've studied in, a common phrase was, "Research is me-search."
posted by Fuego at 12:05 PM on April 14 [5 favorites]

Came to suggest the salience bias, but I don't know that the assertion that "[m]ost people don’t have an interest in areas which they don’t have direct experience with" is provable or necessarily helpful here.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:42 PM on April 14

Agreed. The OP's set up a straw man I don't believe is true. Maybe it's jacobean's reality, but not my own. For example, I was extremely interested in Japan even when my only direct experience was what I read and saw in books.
posted by Rash at 2:44 PM on April 14

In addition to exposure effect and salience bias, educational theorist have long studied direct and mediated experience. John Dewey wrote "experience and education" a long time ago. Direct experience (or lack of experience) is not routinely theorized in relation to motivation and interest, as these latter concepts are taken to be much more complex.
posted by turtlefu at 3:26 PM on April 14

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great answers so far.

>Direct experience (or lack of experience) is not routinely theorized in relation to motivation and >interest, as these latter concepts are taken to be much more complex.

So what are the drivers to motivation and interest when it comes to learning? I know the reasons are probably multi-faceted (and of course complex) but surely somebody has posited some theories?
posted by jacobean at 3:54 PM on April 14

So what are the drivers to motivation and interest when it comes to learning?
I suspect it is empathy and the mirrored self. Many of us can think of a favorite teacher. My high school biology teacher was bonkers eccentric and not everybody's cup of tea but I got his jokes. I had already made a switch from Arts to Science in mid-teens, for reasons, and this bloke challenged and changed me. At a similar age, Bill Bryson growing up in Iowa, had an I'm a European epiphany on seeing a photo of a boy in lederhosen. He was exposed to hundreds of other options and experiences but that's what called him to the University of Life in England. You can always make these explanations in retrospect; not so easy to create a predictive model.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:19 AM on April 15

Best answer: What are the drivers to motivation and learning?
Well that depends on your theory of learning. Education psychologists broadly will look at intrinsic and extrinsic theories of motivation. Motivation might be explained in terms of behaviors and guided through positive/negative reinforcement. Cognitive theories of self-efficacy can relate to if someone pursues their interest or not. Your question appears to be based on the truism that you cannot know and therefore learn what you do not know. (If you have never experienced the pyramids, you will not pursue learning the pyramids). So the question would be can this be remedied through exposure. If you have a direct experience with Egypt, would that change? Maybe - maybe not. Again ed psychologists might study exposure effects but anthropologists and sociologists might approach the question why do people pursue the things they do from a different perspective. The drivers of motivation and interest can be individual, psychological, economic, social, or cultural (and likely many more).
posted by turtlefu at 5:30 AM on April 15

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

Very informative posts and theories which helps explain the phenomenon on a micro but also on a macro level.

And special mention to BobtheScientist for giving us a very personal and relevant example. Nothing beat theory being played out in real-life!

As an aside the comment "Research is me-search" made me laugh. Reminds of a career guidance book I read in high-school which rather sternly advised readers against studying psychology if the desire was to iron our any personal psychological quirks!
posted by jacobean at 2:27 PM on April 15

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