Cognitive Psychology

Volume 132, February 2022, 101453
Cognitive Psychology

Motivated to learn: An account of explanatory satisfaction

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2021.101453Get rights and content
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Some explanations feel more satisfying than others. Why?

Explanatory satisfaction is related to perceived learning and subsequent curiosity.

However, satisfaction is only sometimes related to measures of actual learning.

Perceived learning mediates the effect of reductive information on satisfaction.

Conclusion: satisfaction is “imperfectly aligned” with the goal of learning.


Many explanations have a distinctive, positive phenomenology: receiving or generating these explanations feels satisfying. Accordingly, we might expect this feeling of explanatory satisfaction to reinforce and motivate inquiry. Across five studies, we investigate how explanatory satisfaction plays this role: by motivating and reinforcing inquiry quite generally (“brute motivation” account), or by selectively guiding inquiry to support useful learning about the target of explanation (“aligned motivation” account). In Studies 1–2, we find that satisfaction with an explanation is related to several measures of perceived useful learning, and that greater satisfaction in turn predicts stronger curiosity about questions related to the explanation. However, in Studies 2–4, we find only tenuous evidence that satisfaction is related to actual learning, measured objectively through multiple-choice or free recall tests. In Study 4, we additionally show that perceptions of learning fully explain one seemingly specious feature of explanatory preferences studied in prior research: the preference for uninformative “reductive” explanations. Finally, in Study 5, we find that perceived learning is (at least in part) causally responsible for feelings of satisfaction. Together, these results point to what we call the “imperfectly aligned motivation” account: explanatory satisfaction selectively motivates inquiry towards learning explanatory information, but primarily through fallible perceptions of learning. Thus, satisfaction is likely to guide individuals towards lines of inquiry that support perceptions of learning, whether or not individuals actually are learning.


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