I. Part of an Interview with Dr. Westgate:
In one of your papers you talk about thinking for pleasure. Please tell us more about this.
I originally became interested in boredom, because we were trying to understand why people found it so hard to be alone with their thoughts. We were curious whether people could simply entertain themselves by thinking, rather than have to use their phones or books or other “external” sources of stimulation to entertain themselves. So we brought people into the lab and asked them to think fun thoughts for 10-20 moments, and over and over again we found that people said it wasn’t very enjoyable, was something boring, and that they enjoyed those other kinds of external activities much more; in one study we even found that 67% of the men and 25% of the women would shock themselves rather than just sit and enjoy their thoughts. That led me to the question not only of why thinking was so boring for these people, but why boredom would lead people to be willing to shock themselves.
What is productive procrastination?
Productive procrastination is procrastinating on one thing by doing something else that is still a productive and good use of time.
Productive procrastination is procrastinating on one thing by doing something else that is still a productive and good use of time. For instance, putting off writing a paper in one class by studying for an exam in a second class. Traditional approaches to procrastination conceptualize it as a self-regulation failure, and only focus on what people are NOT doing – the thing they are putting off. Instead, we focus on what people are doing instead, and the extent to which that is still a good use of their time. For instance, we find that when people engage in productive procrastination by replacing one academic task with another academic task, those students’ grades are just as good as those students who don’t procrastinate at all.
Please tell us about the spiritual approach to desire and happiness.
In the US, we often think that the path to happiness is to achieve our desires.
In the US, we often think that the path to happiness is to achieve our desires. But the problem with that approach is that once we satisfy one set of desires, we adapt, and set our eyes on new desires. That sets people up for what we call the “hedonic treadmill”, where achieving your desires can bring you only temporary happiness, before you bounce back to how you felt before. In one paper, we suggested that rather than constantly working hard to achieve our desires, people might be more successful if they took a more Buddhist approach; rather than trying to chase desires to feel happy, perhaps a better way to decrease the gap between what you have and what you want to have is to reduce your expectations. In other words, to be happier, it might help to want less and reduce our desires. Evidence, for instance, suggests that “satisficers” who are happy with the first available option that’s “good enough” tend to be happier than “maximizers” who want to look at each and every option before making a decision.
Would you say contentment is different from happiness?
We do know there are cultural differences in the kinds of positive emotions people want to feel.
Contentment is often associated with feeling satisfied with the options available; whether that’s a different feeling from happiness, or just a form of happiness is hard to say. We do know there are cultural differences in the kinds of positive emotions people want to feel. For instance, Americans tend to want to feel “high arousal” positive feelings – things like excitement and joy. In contrast, in many East Asian cultures, people report they’d like to feel “low arousal” positive feelings, like calm and contentment. In actuality, there’s no difference in how people actually feel across cultures, but it does suggest that people have different ideas about what their cultures value and what they want and should be feeling.
What are the challenges faced by a disengaged mind?
Thinking is hard. We have to be the screenwriters, actors, directors, and audience of our own mental play.
Thinking is hard. We have to be the screenwriters, actors, directors, and audience of our own mental play. From the outside it doesn’t look like much is going on, but internally there’s asking a lot of our brains and cognitive resources. In fact, one way we can help people enjoy being alone with their thoughts is to make it easier, by getting people to write down ideas to think about in advance, to reduce that mental burden a little. Second, people don’t always know what to think about. When we tell people to think enjoyable thoughts, they often focus on superficial things. Instead, it’s better to focus on topics that are both meaningful and enjoyable, like pleasant memories of your first kiss, or your plans for upcoming milestones like graduation. But people don’t seem to know that unless we nudge them a little in that direction; prompting people to think about more meaningful topics also increases how enjoyable they find it to be alone with their thoughts.
Please tell us about your research on alcohol consumption and self control.
A lot of research traditionally thinks of alcohol as a self-control or self-regulation problem; that’s partially true sometimes, but we find that people’s identities are also important. If you think of yourself as a drinker, you’re more likely to drink greater amounts and experience alcohol-related problems, than if you drink but don’t identify “as a drinker” per se. That’s important because it suggests that alcohol use is more than just a failure of self-control; especially in college students it’s bound up in people’s identities and how they think about themselves. Asking people to give up a part of themself by changing that behavior is hard, and requires very different strategies than simply teaching better strategies for self-control.
What is the role of social media in the use of alcohol?
Social media is related to alcohol use in a couple ways.
Social media is related to alcohol use in a couple ways. First of all, people use social media to express who they are, and alcohol is an important part of many people’s identities. Consistently, we see that how people talk about alcohol on social media reflects how they use alcohol in everyday life. I always tell people: if you see a friend on social media who talks about alcohol a lot, and experiencing bad consequences because of it, you should take it seriously.
The more people talk about alcohol on social media, the more likely it is statistically that they’re experiencing alcohol-related problems in everyday life, and the greater their probability of meeting criteria for alcohol use disorder. We like to make a distinction between offline and online behavior, but it’s important to recognize that there’s not a clear line between them – what happens online reflects what happens offline. The second way social media is related to alcohol use is through social influence and conveying social norms. It’s possible that seeing that your friends post about alcohol frequently may change your own perceptions of how normal it is to drink, which could then lead you to drink more. We see less evidence for this than we do for the opposite relationship: that drinking more leads people to post about drinking more. However, it is a concern and something to consider in how we normalize certain behaviors by talking about them online.
In one of your papers you have spoken about the psychology of love. Please tell us more about this.
That’s a really interesting paper; there’s an entire book volume on the psychology of love, and we contributed a chapter on gender differences in sexual intent perceptions. Basically, men think women are more interested in sex than they actually are. A number of studies have shown that, but it wasn’t clear why: were men just engaging in wishful thinking or were they legitimately getting their signals mixed up? It’s a really important question, because thinking someone is interested in sex when they are not contributes to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
To fix that, we need to know why those errors are occurring. Important work by Coreen Farris uses signal detection theory to answer that question. She and colleagues find that women, overall, are more accurate than men at detecting whether women were friendly, sexually interested, sad, or showing signs rejecting sexual overtures. Men were more likely than women to mix up images of friendly and sexually interested women, suggesting that they were less able to read signals from women accurately. These errors were actually worse when women were dressed conservatively. Over all, what we see isn’t that men oversexualize women across the board, but that they aren’t good at reading the nonverbal signals that women send, mixing up friendly behavior with flirty behavior, and signs of rejection with just feeling sad in general.
Please tell us about your growing up years?
I grew up in a small former oil town in southeast Texas. When people think Texas, they think cowboys and cactus, but my part of Texas is more alligators, gumbo, and bayous. And hurricanes. Tall trees and rain for days that breeds mosquitoes, and thick gumbo clay that makes basements impossible. I was born in Austin where my parents were attending graduate school at the University of Texas; after my dad got his PhD in geology we moved to Germany for a year for a teaching position, and then to Beaumont, where I grew up. Beaumont is famous for very few things: 1) we were the site of the first big oil boomtown in the US, when the Spindletop gusher blew in in the early 1900s. 2) A twitter study in 2012 ranked Beaumont “the saddest city in America”, which seems fairly accurate – it is poor, and it is not easy to get out, or get good jobs outside of the refineries or petrochemical plants. And finally 3) we once were home to the largest working fire hydrant in the world, but we have since been surpassed by bigger fire hydrants, leaving us with a really awkwardly large spotted black-and-white fire hydrant downtown.
Everyday was a little like culture shock writ small, because my parents were very much not southeast Texans; my mother was a middle school science teacher from Missouri who stayed home to raise us after my younger brother was born, and my dad was a vertebrate paleontologist by way of New England and DC, and a geology professor at the local university. I spent a lot of my childhood tromping around on field trips with my dad to fossil field sites in Mexico and Laredo, and attending the teacher training programs he taught on environmental science in the local wetlands and marshes.
Please also tell us about your self motivation and those who inspired you towards your field of research.
When I was applying to colleges I initially only applied to places with strong programs in astrophysics; one day my mother stopped me and said, “Why don’t you apply to some places that do psychology, you always loved stealing my textbooks.” That was true; she went back and did a master’s in counseling psychology when I was around 10, and I loved reading her textbooks late into the night. So I applied to Reed College to study social psychology early decision, got in, and it was just the best choice. Reed was everything I had hoped it would be and more, a place where people learned for the love of learning; students still held class on their own even when professors couldn’t attend due to illness. In my yearlong intro psych course I fell in love with high impact lab experiments, and knew I wanted to do that kind of research. That got more specific my senior year when I took a class on Judgment and Decision-Making (which they just called “Thinking!”), which introduced me to so much eye-opening work: on how we can’t introspect on the causes of our own behavior (and thus why we need experiments), on how we don’t know how we will feel in the future. And I knew that I wanted to work with those people, and I did! I never imagined I’d end up studying boredom, of all things, but that’s the beauty of research in academia – we set off to answer one question, and find other delightful questions along the way.
In addition to looking at fish and scuba diving, what do you like doing during your free time?
I live in Florida, and have recently gotten into kayaking. We have gorgeous crystal clear blue freshwater springs in Florida, that look like something out of a Disney film; deep clear blue pools with caves at the bottom surrounded by palm trees and tropical vines. You can kayak through them and in winter, manatees come to the springs to stay warm and escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As I’ve gotten better at kayaking, I’ve started bringing my camera along; for several years I’ve been getting into wildlife and nature photography, and it pairs really well with kayaking and Florida’s freshwater springs and beaches.
Our readers are mainly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
Be persistent. And it’s okay to ask for what you want. In college I didn’t understand how research assistantships worked, so I never asked to join a lab – I didn’t even know it was an option until a mentor approached me my final year. I remember being so shocked when other students told me they just asked; I grew up in the southern US in a very working class town, and I couldn’t imagine being so presumptuous. Now I know it’s okay, but I missed out on a lot of opportunities through the years because I didn’t feel comfortable asking; that’s something I still struggle with.
I also ran into a lot of closed doors in my career. I didn’t get into graduate school the first time I applied either, and couldn’t find any paid psychology jobs after I graduated college; I ended up moving back in with my parents for several months before finally getting a job as a research assistant at the University of Washington through the kindness of connections I had made in the job interview process. When I finally made it into graduate school, I didn’t receive any of the big graduate awards, like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, that other students were receiving. Publications were hard, and lots of papers were rejected at many many journals before finally finding a home. It’s easy to take those rejections personally and assume it’s something about you, instead of something about the system (fundamental attribution error alert!). It took me two rounds on the job market to get a tenure-track position but I couldn’t be happier with where I’ve ended up – I love the area and my colleagues and the work we do.
Dr. Erin Westgate is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, where she studies boredom, interest, and why some thoughts are more engaging than others. She received her PhD in social psychology from the University of Virginia in 2018, and her undergraduate degree from Reed College. Much of her research has been on the conditions under which people enjoy or do not enjoy their own thoughts. She has extended that work to the larger question of why people become bored, developing a new model of boredom that explains what boredom is, why we experience it, and what happens when we do. She spends her free time looking at fish in her many fresh and saltwater aquariums and makes time to go scuba diving. She is a recipient of major awards and scholarships and can truly be said to be a young achiever.
Photos: From the Archive of Dr. Erin Westgate, Shutterstock