Brett van Zuiden

Why do people spend time learning?

As humans, we have 24 hours a day to spend as we choose: socializing, sleeping, eating, and - sometimes - learning. What convinces people to dedicate hours, days, or even years to the pursuit of learning? Here are some of the most common reasons - learners may exhibit multiple at a time or move between them, but if you are designing experiences to encourage learning you should be intentional about which ones you emphasize.

Curiosity, or “Wikipedia rabbit holes”

You hear something and go “huh, I wonder…” With the internet, you are always a mere seconds away from an almost infinite depth of knowledge on whatever you might be curious about. Most of these learning sessions are brief - you had a question, answered it, onto the next thing. Rarely, a learning session may inspire further study, and in a few select cases inspire a lifetime of inquiry.

Fascination, or “Ph.D. in Seismology”

Reality is surprisingly complex, and certain people find corners of reality fascinating. From the history of Pez dispensers to quantum chromodynamics, people occasionally stumble into a subject area that grabs their interest so intently that they develop a hunger to learn more and devote their spare time or often careers to that topic. Learning here is the reward in itself.

Goal, or “I want to be an astronaut”

With Curiosity and Fascination the learning itself is the goal and reward, but in many cases people learn things because that learning will help them achieve other goals. To distinguish from Stamp of Approval, in this case the learner truly believes that the knowledge or skill itself that is learned will help them achieve the desired goal, not simply the credential; if they got the learning but not the credential, that would still be fine.

Stamp of Approval, or “C’s get degrees”

Similar to Goal, often people go through the process of learning something merely so that they can qualify for a certificate that will help them achieve some other goal. This is the student who is fine cramming for a test and then immediately forgetting everything the day – as long as they get a good enough grade.

Status, or “I hear girls love a guy that can play guitar”

Humans are status-seeking monkeys; learning a high-status or in-demand skill can improve one’s ranking relative to peers. In adolescence, high-status skills include sports and athleticism, video-game proficiency, conversation skills (especially with members of the opposite sex), or in some groups, encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As adults, learning-as-status-seeking can manifest as ways to appear more cultured (cooking courses, wine-appreciation courses), ways to earn more money (seminars on flipping houses), or ways to advance one’s career (MBAs, PMP certification).

Achievement, or “100% Complete!”

Learning something new is a challenge - simply the desire to overcome a challenge can be enough to encourage someone to spend time learning. This is the person who memorizes the capital of every U.S. state or who makes it a point to always complete the Sunday crossword puzzle. While the achievement may carry some status-boosters as well, for these learners overcoming the challenge itself is the primary reason.

Compliance, or “Or else!”

Unfortunately quite common, people spend time "learning" things because someone told them they had to or suffer negative consequences. This is the employee that plays the required HR training in the background while they browse Tiktok. As a distinction from Stamp of Approval, a learner with a Compliance mindset is participating to avoid a negative outcome rather than achieve a positive outcome.

Suggestion, or “You’ll love it!”

Sometimes a person takes a course because someone suggests it and they have nothing better to do. This is common with younger kids whose parents will sign them for a class that the parent thinks the child will like. The child isn’t really looking to learn anything, nor do they worry about repercussions if they don’t learn anything; they’re simply there. If the teacher is good, this may spark an interest for the learner to continue learning the subject, whether that’s because of a new goal the learner was made aware of, a curiosity or fascination, the promise of increased status, or any other reason on this list.

As a final note: while people may spend time in a learning environment for any of the reasons on this list, all real learning requires the learner to opt-in. You can talk at someone, you can teach at someone, but you can’t learn at someone.