A priori, it seems to me that one should engage in activities only if they satisfy at least one of these two conditions:

  • They are interesting: People receive direct hedonic value in the process of doing them.
  • They are important: People acquire relevant knowledge and skills that help them with other activities (some of that help could be through signaling).

But investigation we did in connection with our research at Cognito Mentoring led my collaborator Jonah and me to notice that a fair number of people seem attracted to learning things for the sake of learning, although they neither have an internal belief that learning the subject is important, nor a deep interest in learning that specific topic. Some of them then get frustrated that they're unable to make progress on their self-set learning goals, and this may harm their self-esteem (and put them off learning more important things later). Others may experience success that encourages them to learn more things, some of which may be interesting or important. Our page on managing your time generally advises against participating in and focusing on such activities, or at minimum critically considering whether the activities are sufficiently important to justify engaging in them even if one doesn't find them interesting.

However, Jonah and I may be missing important perspectives. I've heard claims that engaging in activities that are neither interesting nor important has intrinsic value -- it helps build character, makes one grow as a person, or it just might turn out to be important.

This school of thinking is reflected in diverse quarters. Tiger Mom Amy Chua famously forced her daughters to learn musical instruments to build their character, even though at least one of her daughters found it a terrible experience, and there was no reason to believe that the activity itself is important. The belief that one should try and learn new things is also widespread (albeit in a very different sort of way) in the rationalistic self-help community.

What's going on? Some possible explanations:

  1. A mentality of trying and learning new things, including things that seem neither interesting nor important prima facie, might be crucial for learning new life habits and productivity hacks (see here and here for analysis by Dan Keys of CFAR that provides evidence in favor of this view).
  2. Some people are very high in the openness to experience dimension. The very fact of trying out new things generates value for them, even if the activities do not interest them much at the object level.
  3. Some of the "learning new things" is done in a social context, and the value is derived from the social context rather than the activity itself. However, the learning activity provides better structure to the social context.
  4. Some people who don't have specific long-term goals don't have a huge number of important things to do -- at any rate, not enough to fill up all their time.
  5. Some people are motivated more by a sense of short-term accomplishment at things that look hard than by the hedonic value of doing things in real time, so they gravitate towards activities that can best indicate short-term accomplishment to themselves or others.

What do you think?

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There's a risk of using status considerations as a hammer against which everything looks like a nail, but in this context I really do think they're pretty often the right answer. Amy Chua, for example, wasn't forcing her daughters to learn violin or piano (and only those instruments, IIRC) primarily because it builds some vague form of character; she was doing it, consciously or not, because violin and piano are coded as upper-class instruments and learning them is a form of costly signaling. Contrast, say, guitar; becoming a competent guitarist isn't much easier than becoming a competent pianist (I tried both when I was younger, without much success), and any cognitive effects from learning it must be much the same, but it lacks the desired class and personality associations.

Are they consciously aware that they find what they're learning neither interesting or important? I think I've met quite a few people who studied things because they believed themselves to be interested in them even though you could infer from their behaviour that actually they weren't. We often fail to know our own preferences.

Can you give a few examples where people voluntarily learn things they consider neither interesting nor important? I am having trouble thinking of any.

Reason number one: someone with power or influence over them considers the activity to be interesting or important. (Example: school.)

Which would make the activity an instrument for pleasing the person in power, i.e. important for getting a reward / not getting punishment.

I'm not sure why you're dismissing building character as an explanation. Something builds character if it helps a person develop virtues such as patience, perseverance, humility, temperance, etc. Committing to a difficult activity can obviously do this, perhaps more so if it is not instrumental. There's also the sense in which an activity can be a test of character, so that completing it reveals (to oneself and others) virtues (or room for improvement). I find "direct hedonic value" far more suspicious, since most "rewarding" activities offer nothing of the sort (the pleasure of a difficult activity is usually delayed and the activity itself may be wholly negative), and those that do are usually considered addictions/vices/etc. Hedonic reward also has only a tenuous connection to an activity being considered "interesting"; in fact, probably only boredom can stop an activity from being interesting and I'm not even sure about that (in many endurance sports the tedium is part of the challenge).

I'm not sure why you're dismissing building character as an explanation.

Perhaps because the character could be built just as well doing something else, equally difficult but more important? It's not just a dilemma between doing a character-building thing and slacking off. It's also why you chose this specific character-building thing instead of another.

It's not just a choice between playing piano and watching TV, but also between playing piano and learning programming or building a startup. Character building answers only the first part of the question.

But only if you are aware of this option. Beside simply being unknown other tasks may look (or be rationalized to) to be out of your range.


It seems obvious to me that there are cases (not only involving learning) in which people quite reasonably do things neither for your reason 1 nor for your reason 2. For instance, people often do things in order to be paid, even though they don't enjoy them all that much for their own sake and they don't do much to build skills. People do things to impress other people. People do things because they consider they have a moral obligation to do them. Etc.

The idea of "learning for its own sake" may be a puzzle even for a steelmanned version of your dichotomy -- e.g., you'd think people do things either because they directly enjoy them or because they are a means to some directly enjoyable end (though I think even that is too narrow, actually) -- but as it stands there are just waaaaay too many obvious exceptions to your dichotomy for the fact that something doesn't fit it to be puzzling at all.

For what it's worth, I think a leading reason for the particular phenomenon of learning-for-its-own-sake is simply that these people have spent years in an education system that consistently praises and rewards them for learning. It would be hard for them not to emerge with a feeling that learning is good for its own sake. (Which it might be -- or it might be consistently valuable in ways that would be hard to predict in advance -- and those may be among the reasons why the education system is that way.)

Learning is often simply compulsive, addicted behavior.

Your brain gets a little kick when the new idea "clicks" in your brain. Oooh, it feels good. You want more. Moreover, learning is an addiction that is generally approved of, so you shoot up with a clear, and possibly self righteous conscience. Oooh, that's the good stuff. Another little treasure of learning random shit you'll never use is that you'll never put your learning to a test. You can get your rush while completely mistaking the point.

Learning is often simply compulsive, addicted behavior.

Consuming information is. Learning is a somewhat higher-level activity and infovore addicts generally don't bother with it.

It seems to me that you are mixing up two questions. One question is why your mentees study things they think are neither interesting nor important. The other question is why people might be encouraging them to do so. For the first question, why don't you start by asking them? I'm not claiming that they'll have perfect introspection; in particular, I don't expect them to admit to 5, but if the reason is 1, I do expect them to articulate that. But I don't expect many people are motivated by 1; that seems more like the answer to why Amy Chua wants her children to do things. And even if the children know that it reflects parental desires, they may not be able to explain the parental thinking.

Also, to the extent that your goal is to explain the survey, in particular the frustration, I think you can rule out 2 and 4 and maybe 3. Those of 2 and 4 would just move on to another subject.

Another way to put the two questions: why do people do this; and why should people do this?

It seems to be commonly thought that there is a notion of "well-roundedness" which is important in itself. This seems to be a very common reason for learning musical instruments, languages, etc. The person may not find the particular skill or subject to be important, but will do so anyway in pursuit of the well-roundedness that they do consider important.


I've heard claims that engaging in activities that are neither interesting nor important has intrinsic value -- it helps build character, makes one grow as a person, or it just might turn out to be important.

If it builds character, makes you grow, or turns out to be important, then it is important, its importance is just surprising.

What people might actually be doing is operating with the knowledge that they are not good at distinguishing important information from unimportant information. Thus, it seems safer to try to learn as much as possible, in the hopes that that will include the important things.

My impression is that some people believe learning helps keeps their brain/mind alive. They may be right.