Do you long to become a “thought leader”, thinkfluencing your way from TED talk to tech conference, lauded for your insights? I hope not. But if so, you could do worse than consulta paper published in 1971 by the maverick sociologist Murray Davis, entitled “That’s Interesting!” (I found it via Adam Grant.) What is it, Davis asks, that makes certain thinkers – Marx, Freud, Nietzsche – legendary? “It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true,” he writes, “but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” Even in the world of academia, most people aren’t motivated by the truth. What they want, above all, is not to be bored.
Forty-three years on, this feels truer than ever. We live in the Era of Interestingness: attention is money, and purveyors of the interesting can make millions from Twitter feeds of amazing facts – even if they’re not always true facts – or from books or blogs offering intriguingly counterintuitive perspectives. (This column’s part of the problem, except I’ve yet to make millions.) Moreover, Davis argues, there are only a handful of main ways for an idea to be interesting. To grab people’s attention, you should argue that something we think of as bad is good, or vice versa; that some apparently individual phenomenon is really collective; that several seemingly disparate things are actually part of the same thing; and a few others. It’s unnerving how many thinkers can be pigeonholed this way. Christian morality seems good, Nietzsche argued, but really it’s bad. Mental disorders, dreams and slips of the tongue might seem unrelated, Freud said, but really they’re the result of the same inner drives. And on and on.
Clearly, this could be helpful information if you’re looking to intrigue friends, fascinate a potential lover, or keep your students engaged. But it’s also troubling. If you care about the truth, Davis suggests, interestingness can mislead. That new book on how to get fit – or raise happy children, or invest your savings – caught your eye because it’s interesting. But is it true? (In science, this helps explain the “file drawer effect”: studies with interesting conclusions get published; boring ones, however true, get locked away.) Ultimately, interestingness is a form of excitement, and we all know how excitement can lure us off course: consider the thrill of an extramarital affair, or of driving at 120mph. But it’s intellectually respectable excitement, so it doesn’t ring alarm bells.
Perhaps it should. When he gives talks, the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle likes to warn the audience that they may not find the experience interesting. He’s not simply lowering expectations. He means that constantly to chase after what’s interesting is to miss something crucial about life. Interestingness gives the mind something to chew on – but the best experiences come when you stop chewing. When you’re watching a stunning sunset, Tolle asks, “could you say, ‘This sunset is interesting’? Only if you were trying to write a PhD about sunsets… Truly look, and then what you’re looking at goes beyond interesting… There’s nothing interesting about it, and yet it’s awe-inspiring.”
My first reaction to that was, “How interesting! I must explore this topic further!” which just shows how addictive interestingness can be. The correct reaction, obviously, is to go and watch the sunset.
First published in Guardian Weekend magazine.