The Many Facets of Boredom – An Interview with Dr. Westgate

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Boredom can have many consequences. It can lead to strange behavior, can be interesting, cause changes in cognition, can affect single people differently compared to those living in a relationship, it even has variations and apart from negative outcomes can have a positive effect. Read about this and more in our interview with Dr. Erin Westgate who is a specialist in the study of boredom.

The Many Facets of Boredom - An Interview with Dr. Westgate
The Many Facets of Boredom - An Interview with Dr. Westgate

Dr.Westgate, first of all please tell us what would be the definition of boredom.

Boredom is an emotion, like any other we might experience.

Boredom is an emotion, like any other, we might experience. Like those other emotions, boredom gives us information – just as anger tells us that someone has violated an important boundary, boredom tells us that we’re not meaningfully engaged in what we’re doing.

Both parts of that – the meaning and the attentional engagement matter. We can be bored for two reasons: either because what we’re doing doesn’t feel meaningful right now, or we can be bored because we can’t pay attention because what we are doing is too hard or too easy.

We know that meaning and attention both cause boredom, because when we manipulate them in the lab experimentally, both independently produce boredom.

We also see, in correlational studies, that attention and meaning deficits independent predict boredom.

Boredom signals us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to make a change to restore meaning and attention.

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What would be the exact motivation behind the Russian man stealing an army truck or shop workers cremating a mouse or the Irishman shooting pellets at drivers. Can it just be qualified as boredom?

One of the difficulties in studying boredom is how to measure it. We can’t simply study a person’s facial expressions, or their physiological symptoms (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate), or even the neural activity in the brain and use that to measure boredom, because a large amount of evidence suggests that we can’t identify specific emotions using facial expressions, physiology, or neural activity.

That’s pretty surprising to a lot of people, including scientists!

Instead, we have to rely on what people tell us. People can’t tell us why they did what they did (although they think they can!), but they can accurately tell us what they were feeling at the time.

In the case of the Russian tank thief, he told us that he stole the tank and broke into a grocery store with it because he was bored.

Now, because people can’t introspect accurately on the reasons for their own behavior, he might be right or he might be wrong.

But we can probably trust the he did feel bored before he did those things, and that the shop workers probably did true, because people are usually accurate explaining how they felt.

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What are some of the other strange acts committed by bored people?

Boredom makes us more interested in novel things, and more sensitive to rewards.

Boredom makes us more interested in novel things, and more sensitive to rewards.

That means that even things that might normally seem pretty negative or aversive may become more attractive when we are bored.

So, for instance, we know that when we experimentally induce boredom in the lab, people are more willing to self-administer painful electric shocks to themselves. They also become more interested in looking at upsetting images.

There are lots of anecdotes of people doing similar strange things, supposedly out of boredom, in the news, including a security guard recently who handcuffed himself at work and then lost the keys, and had to call 911 emergency services to help him.

When asked later, he claimed he was just bored!

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Why do you say boredom can be interesting?

It’s a little bit of a paradox – boredom seems like such a run-of-the-mill everyday (dare I say boring) feeling.

But when we look at the psychological literature, we see that science has almost entirely overlooked it.

It’s only in the past decade that psychology has rebound an interest in boredom and that scientific study of boredom has really finally taken off.

That’s really exciting, as a scientist. And we’re learning some really amazing things; for such a completely ordinary emotion, boredom is wrapped up in these really big questions about what makes life meaningful, and how we should best use the limited time we have on earth.

For instance, in a new line of study, we’re looking at who lives psychologically rich lives, and we’re seeing that psychological richness (the opposite of living a boring life!) may be one of the big three components that make up psychological well-being and what it means to live a good life, alongside happiness and meaning.

That’s a lot for such a little emotion!

 

What kind of cognitive change results from bored thoughts and minds?

When people feel bored, they become motivated to stop feeling bored – feeling bored feels bad.

As part of that, people become more sensitive to rewards; that $10 will seem more appealing now than it did when you weren’t bored a few minutes ago.

And that in turn can lead to risk-taking – by making the potential benefits more alluring, it changes our perceived cost:benefit ratio and may tilt us towards riskier behaviors.

Finally, we become more attuned and interested in novelty when bored; we are more likely to seek out new and novel experiences when we’re bored than when we are otherwise content.

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What are the opportunity costs when related to boredom?

Boredom is healthy; it’s good to feel bored, just like it’s good to feel pain because it’s alerting us to important problems we need to address.

But just like we can cover up the pain with drugs, instead of fixing the underlying damage or source of pain, we can also “cover-up” feelings of boredom, with mindless activity (like social media) or drugs and alcohol.

Those aren’t healthy responses to boredom, because they don’t fix the meaning and attention problems that led to boredom in the first place.

They’re just a band-aid; and when we ignore boredom and try to cover it up in that way, ultimately it’s going to come back.

As an example, we feel more bored when we are stuck doing something and see that we could be doing something better instead; a healthy response to that feeling would be to switch activities (if the other option really is better) or to find ways to make our current activity feel more meaningful or be more appropriately challenging.

Just covering it up means we miss out on an opportunity to address the problems boredom is trying to alert us to.

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Are single people more bored compared to those that have built families?

There is some evidence that married people are less bored day-to-day than single people, but parents don’t appear to experience more (or less boredom) than people without kids.

There is some evidence that married people are less bored day-to-day than single people, but parents don’t appear to experience more (or less boredom) than people without kids.

The differences in married people appear to be partly due to situational differences in the lives of married vs unmarried people (for instance, people tend to be less bored spending time with romantic partners and close friends than with strangers, and married people get to spend more time with their partners) but also partly due to demographic differences.

For instance, married people tend to be older and wealthier than unmarried people, and age and SES are both associated with less boredom.

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Does boredom often lead to violence?

There’s a lot of speculation on whether boredom increases aggression, but very little evidence. In a recent series of studies we conducted, we do find associations between boredom and what we call sadistic aggression – basically behaving in aggressive ways because it’s fun or entertaining to you, not because the aggression serves a purpose.

For instance, when we experimentally induce boredom in the lab, people are more willing to grind up bugs in a coffee grinder (don’t worry, the bugs aren’t actually harmed!

Unknown to the participants, the coffee grinder is fake, and the bugs just fall harmlessly into another compartment).

In the non-boring control condition, only 1 person decided to grind up a worm, but in the experimental boredom condition 12 people chose to do so – that’s an increase from 2% to almost 18%.

At the same time, other studies we’ve run suggest that when people have both good and bad options available to them, people only react to boredom with aggression if they’re already prone to sadistic behavior in the first place.

That’s encouraging, I think.

 

What kind of variants are associated with boredom?

One surprising result we found in our work is that the different causes of boredom also have different consequences.

Earlier we talked about how boredom can be caused by a lack of meaning or by a lack of attention. One surprising result we found in our work is that the different causes of boredom also have different consequences.

For instance, when we induce boredom via attentional deficits, people say they’re bored but also say they have difficulty concentrating.

When we induce boredom via meaning deficits, however, they say they are equally bored – but they also say they feel more disengaged, more agitated, sadder, and feel like time is passing more slowly.

It’s a different “profile” of boredom than the kind of boredom that’s due to a lack of attention. What we’re looking at now is whether being bored for these different reasons – attentional boredom vs meaningless boredom – lead us to act in different ways.

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What is mixed boredom?

It’s fairly rare that someone would be bored because what they were doing was 100% meaningful and they just couldn’t pay attention.

Likewise, it’s rare that someone would 100% be able to pay attention, but didn’t find what they were doing meaningful.

Instead, in everyday life, people probably feel a little bit of both – something may be a little bit meaningless but also somewhat hard to pay attention to. On average, meaning and attention aren’t highly correlated, which suggests that these patterns occur somewhat at random.

But mixed boredom is what occurs when you’re bored because you’re experiencing meaning and attention deficits at the same time.

Because we can know what we are feeling, but not why we are feeling it, this can make it trickier to figure out why you are bored and what you can do about it.

 

Broadly speaking, what are the positive outcomes of boredom?

The best possible outcome of boredom would be to catch it quickly and use that small mental alert to redirect attention to meaningful challenging activities.

The best possible outcome of boredom would be to catch it quickly and use that small mental alert to redirect attention to meaningful challenging activities.

There’s some studies that suggest boredom might lead us to be more creative or engage in more prosocial behavior, but not all studies agree on that; other studies don’t find those kinds of benefits of boredom.

Being bored isn’t something we should aspire to. We don’t need to be bored to be creative, for instance.

But we can and should listen to feelings of boredom when we experience it, and try to respond in healthy adaptive ways.

When treated in that way, boredom is a good signal because it warns us when we are getting off track and helps push us back on.

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Similarly, what are the usual negative outcomes of boredom?

Unfortunately, people often don’t respond to boredom in that way; they try to cover it up, or they turn to other activities that aren’t so good for them. For instance, people are more willing to harm themselves and others when they are bored.

A number of studies find that when you make people bored in experimental lab studies, they are more willing to shock themselves with painful electric shocks.

Other studies find that people are more willing to kill worms, and to dock pay from other people for no reason, when they are bored, even though there’s no personal benefit to doing so.

Boredom has also been associated with alcohol and drug use; for instance, we find that across the 50 US states, some states experience more boredom than others as evidenced by google search patterns, and states that experience more boredom also report more drug-related deaths, even after comparing for demographics differences.

 

Are the youth more prone to getting bored compared with the older generation?

Very little research has looked at boredom in children or adolescents; teens often get blamed for being prone to this emotion, but we don’t know whether they actually get bored more easily or are just more willing to express it.

For instance, a recent study of American teens found that they reported themselves as around a “3” on a 5-point scale of boredom; they’re somewhat bored, but not extremely so.

Other research suggests that it declines a little bit as people age from their 20s on into older adulthood but these differences are small and plateau once people hit retirement age.

 


Dr. Erin Westgate
Dr. Erin Westgate

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

II. Part of the interview with Dr. Erin Westgate:

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More interviews here:

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