How the Subjective Relationship Between the Self, Others, and a Task Drives Interest

  • Allison MasterEmail author
  • Lucas P. Butler
  • Gregory M. Walton


The present chapter explores the hypothesis that an important influence on interest is the perceived or subjective social context in which a task is completed—the perception of the relationship between the self, a task, and other people engaged in the task. We call this the triadic relationship in which a task is completed. We theorize that this triadic relationship is a key driver of interest from early in life, and sets the stage for the development of interest into childhood and adolescence. Specifically, we hypothesize that when people perceive themselves to be connected to others engaged in a task, or when they see themselves as working with others on a task rather than separately from others, this will inspire greater interest. In the present chapter, we review theoretical and empirical evidence supporting this hypothesis from both developmental and social psychology. We then map out the implications of this insight for interventions to improve individuals’ interest and academic performance.


Interest Motivation Social context Subjective construal Social connection Mere belonging Development 


  1. Aarts, H., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hassin, R. R. (2004). Goal contagion: Perceiving is for pursuing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 23–37.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  3. Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Morales, A. C. (2006). Consumer contamination: How consumers react to products touched by others. Journal of Marketing, 70, 81–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S. C., & Aron, E. N. (2004). Including others in the self. European Review of Social Psychology, 15, 101–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Aronson, E. (2004). Reducing hostility and building compassion: Lessons from the jigsaw classroom. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 469–488). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  7. Aronson, E., & Osherow, N. (1980). Cooperation, prosocial behavior, and academic performance: Experiments in the desegregated classroom. In L. Bickerman (Ed.), Applied social psychology annual (pp. 163–196). Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  8. Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Ashley, J., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Cooperative problem-solving and teaching in preschoolers. Social Development, 7, 143–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Baldwin, D. A. (1991). Infants’ contribution to the achievement of joint reference. Child Development, 62, 874–890.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.Google Scholar
  12. Barragan, R. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Rethinking natural altruism: Simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 17071–17074.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., & Nuss, C. K. (2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 817–827.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Beier, J. S., Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2014). Young children help others to achieve their social goals. Developmental Psychology, 50, 934–940.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Brannon, T. N., & Walton, G. M. (2013). Enacting cultural interests: How intergroup contact reduces prejudice by sparking interest in an out-group’s culture. Psychological Science, 24, 1947–1957.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Brownell, C. A., & Carriger, M. S. (1990). Changes in cooperation and self-other differentiation during the second year. Child Development, 61, 1164–1174.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Butler, L. P., & Walton, G. M. (2013). The opportunity to collaborate increases preschoolers’ motivation for challenging tasks. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116, 953–961.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Carr, P. B., & Walton, G. M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2001). On the self-regulation of behavior. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893–910.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cheryan, S., Master, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2015). Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 49.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology, Vols. 1 and 2 (4th ed., pp. 151–192). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  24. Cordova, D. I., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 715–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Csibra, G. (2010). Recognizing communicative intentions in infancy. Mind & Language, 25, 141–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  27. Cwir, D., Carr, P. B., Walton, G. M., & Spencer, S. J. (2011). Your heart makes my heart move: Cues of social connectedness cause shared emotions and physiological states among strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 661–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Dunham, P. J., & Moore, C. (1995). Current themes in research on joint attention. In C. Moore & P. J. Dunham (Eds.), Joint attention: Its origins and role in development (pp. 15–28). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  29. Farroni, T., Johnson, M. H., Menon, E., Zulian, L., Faraguna, D., & Csibra, G. (2005). Newborns’ preference for face-relevant stimuli: Effects of contrast polarity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, 17245–17250.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Fitzsimons, G. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2003). Thinking of you: Nonconscious pursuit of interpersonal goals associated with relationship partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 148–164.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 148–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., King, A. M., Hsu, L. M., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T. (2016). Creating birds of similar feathers: Leveraging similarity to improve teacher-student relationships and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 342–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gelman, S. A., Frazier, B. N., Noles, N. S., Manczak, E. M., & Stilwell, S. M. (2015). How much are Harry Potter’s glasses worth? Children’s monetary evaluation of authentic objects. Journal of Cognition and Development, 16, 97–117.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, Special Issue: Consumer Welfare, 35, 472–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Goodenow, C. (1992). Strengthening the links between educational psychology and the study of social contexts. Educational Psychologist, 27, 177–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2005). Can instructional and emotional support in the first-grade classroom make a difference for children at risk of school failure? Child Development, 76, 949–967.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hidi, S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Motivating the academically unmotivated: A critical issue for the 21st century. Review of Educational Research, 70, 151–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41, 111–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Howe, L. C., Carr, P. B., & Walton, G. M. (Under review). Normative appeals that invite people to work together toward a common cause are more effective.Google Scholar
  41. Isaac, J. D., Sansone, C., & Smith, J. L. (1999). Other people as a source of interest in an activity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 239–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (1999). Rethinking the role of choice: A cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 349–366.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Job, V., Nikitin, J., Zhang, S. X., Carr, P. B., & Walton, G. M. (2017). Social Traces of Generic Humans Increase the Value of Everyday Objects. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 785–792.Google Scholar
  44. Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38, 365–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kerr, N. L., Messé, L. A., Seok, D., Sambolec, E. J., Lount, R. B., & Park, E. S. (2007). Psychological mechanisms underlying the Köhler motivation gain. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 828–841.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 354–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Knogler, M., Harackiewicz, J. M., Gegenfurtner, A., & Lewalter, D. (2015). How situational is situational interest? Investigating the longitudinal structure of situational interest. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 43, 39–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kushnir, T., Xu, F., & Wellman, H. M. (2010). Young children use statistical sampling to infer the preferences of other people. Psychological Science, 21, 1134–1140.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lewin, K. (1947). Group decision and social change. Readings in Social Psychology, 3, 197–211.Google Scholar
  50. Liszkowski, U., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Pointing out new news, old news, and absent referents at 12 months of age. Developmental Science, 10, F1–F7.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Liszkowski, U., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Twelve-month-olds communicate helpfully and appropriately for knowledgeable and ignorant partners. Cognition, 108, 732–739.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Master, A., Cheryan, S., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2017). Social group membership increases STEM engagement among preschoolers. Developmental Psychology, 53, 201–209.Google Scholar
  53. Master, A., & Walton, G. M. (2013). Minimal groups increase young children’s motivation and learning on group-relevant tasks. Child Development, 84, 737–751.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Meltzoff, A. N. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children. Developmental Psychology, 31, 838–850.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). ‘Like me’: A foundation for social cognition. Developmental Science, 10, 126–134.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mendoza-Denton, R., Downey, G., Purdie, V. J., Davis, A., & Pietrzak, J. (2002). Sensitivity to status-based rejection: Implications for African American students’ college experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 896–918.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Morton, J., & Johnson, M. H. (1991). CONSPEC and CONLERN: A two-process theory of infant face recognition. Psychological Review, 98, 164–181.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Murayama, K., & Elliot, A. J. (2012). The competition–performance relation: A meta-analytic review and test of the opposing processes model of competition and performance. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 1035–1070.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Murphy, M. C., Steele, C. M., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 18, 879–885.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Neruda, P. (1994). Odes to common things. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.Google Scholar
  61. Newman, G. E., Diesendruck, G., & Bloom, P. (2011). Celebrity contagion and the value of objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 215–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Over, H. (2016). The origins of belonging: Social motivation in infants and young children. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371, 20150072.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2009). Eighteen-month-old infants show increased helping following priming with affiliation. Psychological Science, 20, 1189–1193.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2013). The social side of imitation. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 6–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Perdue, C. W., Dovidio, J. F., Gurtman, M. B., & Tyler, R. B. (1990). Us and them: Social categorization and the process of intergroup bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Perlmutter, M., Behrend, S. D., Kuo, F., & Muller, A. (1989). Social influences on children’s problem solving. Developmental Psychology, 25, 744–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Plass, J., O’Keefe, P. A., Homer, B. D., Case, J., Hayward, E., Stein, M., & Perlin, K. (2013). The impact of individual, competitive, and collaborative mathematics game play on learning, performance, and motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 1050–1066.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Rekers, Y., Haun, D. B., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Children, but not chimpanzees, prefer to collaborate. Current Biology, 21, 1756–1758.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Renninger, K. A., & Hidi, S. (2016). The power of interest for motivation and learning. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  70. Repacholi, B. M., & Gopnik, A. (1997). Early reasoning about desires: Evidence from 14-and 18-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 33, 12–21.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Richardson, M. J., Marsh, K. L., Isenhower, R. W., Goodman, J. R., & Schmidt, R. C. (2007). Rocking together: Dynamics of intentional and unintentional interpersonal coordination. Human Movement Science, 26, 867–891.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Ross, H. S., & Lollis, S. P. (1987). Communication within infant social games. Developmental Psychology, 23, 241–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (1991). The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  74. Sansone, C., & Thoman, D. B. (2005). Interest as the missing motivator in self-regulation. European Psychologist, 10, 175–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sansone, C., Thoman, D. B., & Smith, J. L. (2010). Interest and self-regulation: Understanding individual variability in choices, efforts and persistence over time. In R. Hoyle (Ed.), Handbook of personality and self-regulation (pp. 192–217). Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  76. Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and learning from text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 257–280.Google Scholar
  77. Sebanz, N., Bekkering, H., & Knoblich, G. (2006). Joint action: Bodies and minds moving together. Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, 70–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Shteynberg, G. (2010). A silent emergence of culture: The social tuning effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 683–689.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Shteynberg, G. (2015). Shared attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 579–590.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Shteynberg, G., & Galinksy, A. D. (2011). Implicit coordination: Sharing goals with similar others intensifies goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1291–1294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Shteynberg, G., Hirsh, J. B., Apfelbaum, E. P., Larsen, J. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Roese, N. J. (2014). Feeling more together: Group attention intensifies emotion. Emotion, 14, 1102–1114.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J. J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signaling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 21, 195–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613–629.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943–953.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Tauer, J. M., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2004). The effects of cooperation and competition on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 849–861.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Taylor, S. E., & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological Review, 96, 569–575.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Thoman, D. B., Sansone, C., Fraughton, T., & Pasupathi, M. (2012). How students socially evaluate interest: Peer responsiveness influences evaluation and maintenance of interest. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 37, 254–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Thoman, D. B., Sansone, C., & Pasupathi, M. (2007). Talking about interest: Exploring the role of social interaction for regulating motivation and the interest experience. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 335–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675–735.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  90. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  91. Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 73–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 82–96.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011a). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447–1451.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011b). Sharing motivation. In D. Dunning (Ed.), Social motivation (pp. 79–101). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  95. Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L., Cwir, D., & Spencer, S. J. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 513–532.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Walton, G. M., Logel, C., Peach, J. M., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2015). Two brief interventions to mitigate a “chilly climate” transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 468–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Warneken, F., Chen, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Cooperative activities in young children and chimpanzees. Child Development, 77, 640–663.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Warneken, F., Gräfenhain, M., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Collaborative partner or social tool? New evidence for young children’s understanding of joint intentions in collaborative activities. Developmental Science, 15, 54–61.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301–1303.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy, 11, 271–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Williams, K. D., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of co-worker performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 570–581.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Williams, K. D., Karau, S. J., & Bourgeois, M. J. (1993). Working on collective tasks: Social loafing and social compensation. In M. A. Hogg & D. Abrams (Eds.), Group motivation: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 130–148). Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  103. Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (2011). Ostracism consequences and coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 71–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 132–138.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Woodward, A. L. (1998). Infants selectively encode the goal object of an actor’s reach. Cognition, 69, 1–34.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., Kamentz, D., Ritter, G., Duckworth, A. L., Urstein, R., Gomez, E., Markus, H. R., Cohen, G. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, E3341–E3348.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269–274.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allison Master
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lucas P. Butler
    • 2
  • Gregory M. Walton
    • 3
  1. 1.University of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.University of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychology, Stanford UniversityStanfordUSA

Personalised recommendations