Boredom seems to be a dominant “affliction” of the 21st century. That’s not to say it’s a sole modern life problem. People have been bored since the dawn of mankind, and actually some of the world’s greatest advancements surfaced from the need to battle boredom. Understanding, on an empirical level, what is boredom and what causes it, and in term how to defeat it systematically, is a matter that has eluded philosophers, free thinkers or psychologists however.
Recently a team of scientists at York University in Canada compiled as many as 100 studies published from the turn of the last century to this present day in order to find a common denominator and form an unified theory of boredom. Their findings are interesting at least – they suggest that boredom is the product between conflict of attention and environmental factors. Either we focus too much or too little attention on a particular task.
“Boredom is a neglected topic in psychology,” noted Timothy Wilson, a leading social psychologist at the University of Virginia who is undertaking boredom studies of his own. He calls the new review a “good, solid paper,” adding, “There is a lot of research on attention and mind wandering, but [until now], no attempt to bring it together under the topic of boredom per se.”
There has been little effort directed towards analyzing the cognitive processes that underline boredom, mostly because most of the time it’s viewed as more of an effect or consequence than a stand alone condition. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying boredom is like a disease or even comparable, rather that it is a distinct state of mind that isn’t necessarily linked with known conditions, like depression. Exactly what defines boredom is what cognitive psychologist John Eastwood and his team at York University have been researching.
Boredom is innocent most of the time. Falling asleep in class is one thing, but loosing sight of important maneuvers while piloting an aircraft or driving a ten tonne trucks is a whole different thing, though. Boredom can lead to excessive reliance on automotive behavior which sidetracks you from focusing on an important task. It’s also a factor that might attract people towards alcohol or drug abuse, gambling, or excessive compulsive disorder.
“Boredom has at its core the desiring of satisfying engagement but not being able to achieve that,” Eastwood said. “And attention is the cognitive process whereby we interface with both the external world and our internal thoughts and feelings. So it falls logically that attention must be at the core of the definition.”
Among the myriad of studies the researchers studied was a 1989 experiment at Clark University. Back then, scientists asked study participants to read and remember a moderately engaging magazine article while a TV set was on in a room next door. When the TV was set too loud, participants reported feelings of frustration, but not boredom, in the whole process. When the television noise was more subtle, however, the participants reported they felt the experience was boring. A distraction was in both places present, but boredom surfaced only in the latter occasion.
Another experiment comes from Bond University and looked on how people reacted to ongoing background conversations as they completed one of three tasks: an assembly task that didn’t need much attention, an uninteresting proofreading task that required monitoring, and a management task that required sustained attention but was also quite interesting. While completing the task that required the least attention, the conversations actually entertained the participant and decreased boredom. During the second task is where things become truly interesting: while performing the dull task, which required attention focus however, the background conversations triggered feelings of boredom. In the last task, the background conversation was of little consequence, since the task was so engaging that participants simply tuned noise out.
“Putting attention at the center of the experience…allowed us to explain the subjective experience of boredom: time passing slowly, difficulty focusing, disordered arousal, disrupted agency, negative affect,” said Eastwood.
“When we are in a stimulation-intense environment,” he continues “we are more likely to experience things as unsatisfying because our attention is being pulled in different directions.”
The conclusion is that boredom is triggered by a combination of inner focus and environment. Meaning, in order to tackle boredom you need to change of these two parameters.
Specifically, we’re bored when:
We have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
We’re aware of the fact that we’re having difficulty paying attention
We believe that the environment is responsible for our aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).
Changing one’s mood and deliberately shifting focus for long hours, at times, isn’t something most of us can do with any task, but it serves to say that boredom can be completely in your control. If enough focus is directed at a task, you might even find it interesting to the point of entertaining. Chaining the environment also works.
“Ambient movement is a known way to help people stay attentionally engaged,” Eastwood said. “Just sitting at a desk is a terrible idea.” Wilson agreed, adding that even small environmental changes can make a big difference. When airports moved baggage claims further from arrival gates, Wilson observed, flyers’ satisfaction increased. “They didn’t mind walking so much as they minded waiting.”
The researchers advise that the more distractions we allow ourselves subjected to, the easier we will become bored. “It’s like quicksand,” Eastwood said. “If we thrash around, we end up making it much, much worse.” In a world where both the media and society constantly bombard us for attention, it seems like things will get even more boring in the future.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.