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People Can Learn to Appreciate the Discomfort of Learning

Research suggests that it is possible to reframe discomfort as a positive.

Key points

  • Learning can cause discomfort, and people often seek to avoid discomfort.
  • It is possible to frame discomfort as a sign of important learning.
  • Research suggests that this framing motivates people to learn new things and persist in difficult tasks.
Source: iStock image by fizkes licensed to Art Markman

Learning new things often requires some amount of discomfort. It can be frustrating to be really bad at something when you are first acquiring a skill. You may feel lost when encountering topics you know nothing about. On top of that, confronting information that contradicts deeply-held beliefs can also make you feel bad.

Just because something feels uncomfortable, though, doesn’t mean that it is bad for you. While we often shy away from doing things that feel bad, we sometimes take discomfort as a sign of growth. For example, athletes routinely engage in activities that are physically uncomfortable in order to improve their strength or endurance. Can people do the same thing in order to learn new things?

This question was explored in a paper published in the journal Psychological Science by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach.

Across several studies, the researchers had people do a variety of tasks that were likely to lead to discomfort. Some people were given instructions that discomfort is an important sign of learning, while others were given control instructions that did not mention the value of discomfort. Then, they looked for persistence with those learning tasks.

For example, in one study, participants performed an expressive writing task designed to help them deal with an emotionally difficult situation. Research by my colleague Jamie Pennebaker suggests that this kind of writing is very effective at helping people to deal with the stress of traumatic events, but that the writing process itself is uncomfortable to do.

Some participants were given instructions that the writing would be uncomfortable, but that this discomfort was a sign that the writing was working. Other participants were just told to focus on writing. Participants in each group wrote for a similar amount of time, but the individuals who were told that discomfort was a sign of writing felt that the writing task was more effective than those just told to write. In addition, this group also rated themselves as more motivated to do the writing task again in the future than the group just told to write.

Another study demonstrated that instructions to treat discomfort as a sign of learning only works when the topic itself is uncomfortable. In another study, participants were run during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were given instructions that feeling nervous about reading an article is a sign of learning, while others were just given a goal to learn something new. Then, participants rated their motivation to read several articles—some of which were about the COVID pandemic, and others were about more amusing topics. The instructions that discomfort is a sign of learning increased people’s ratings of motivation to want to read the articles about COVID compared to the control instructions, but it had no impact on ratings of motivation to read the amusing articles.

As a final example, in another study, participants were asked for their political party affiliation. Then, they were shown news articles that were consistent and inconsistent with their political beliefs and asked to rate their interest in reading the articles. Some participants were given instructions that feeling anxious or uncomfortable about reading an article is a sign of learning, while other participants were just given a goal to learn new things. People given instructions that discomfort is a sign of learning were more willing to read articles expressing a different political viewpoint than people who were just given instructions to learn new things. The instructions had no significant impact on participants’ willingness to read articles consistent with their political views.

These findings suggest that people typically avoid discomfort, but when discomfort is framed as a signal that valuable learning is taking place, then people may seek discomfort in some situations (or at least be less likely to avoid it). It is important to note that the effects in these studies are reliable, but small. So, you can’t make people much more likely to look for opportunities to be uncomfortable in service of learning just by giving them brief instructions. However, this effect suggests that people can learn to appreciate discomfort, and over time may even be highly motivated to seek out learning situations despite the discomfort they create.

References

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2022). Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort. Psychological Science, 33(4), 510–523. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211044685

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