Friday, November 8, 2019

Why Boredom Is Interesting

Why Boredom Is Interesting. Erin C. Westgate. Current Directions in Psychological Science, November 8, 2019.

Abstract: Is boredom bad? It is certainly common: Most everybody gets bored. There is a sense that boredom sometimes causes bad things to happen (e.g., substance use, self-harm) and sometimes causes good things to happen (e.g., daydreaming, creativity), but it is hard to understand what boredom does without first understanding what it is. According to the meaning-and-attentional-components (MAC) model of boredom and cognitive engagement, the emotion of boredom signals deficits in attention and meaning. Much like pain, it may not be pleasant, but boredom critically alerts us that we are unable or unwilling to successfully engage attention in meaningful activities. Whether that is good or bad rests ultimately on how we respond.

Keywords: boredom, meaning, attention, motivation, emotion

When a Russian man stole an army tank and drove it into a local supermarket (Kiryukhinia & Coleman, 2018), you would have been forgiven for thinking he had good reason. Nope, reported journalists: He was just bored.
Tales of bored troublemakers abound. From the odd— bored shopworkers cremating a mouse (“‘Bored’ Workers ‘Cremated Mouse,’” 2019)—to the disturbing—an Irishman caught aiming his pellet gun at drivers (Ferguson & McLean, 2019)—these news stories appear regularly, and the explanation “I was bored” resonates and perplexes. What is it about boredom that drives people to steal military equipment, watch movies on the job, and lay mice to rest? Is boredom really that nefarious?
It is certainly common: Most everybody gets bored (e.g., Chin, Markey, Bhargava, Kassam, & Loewenstein, 2017). Boredom is especially common at work, where it is linked to productivity loss and burnout (Fisher, 1993). It is also common in schools: Students get bored, and bored students do not do very well (Pekrun, Goetz, Daniels, Stupnisky, & Perry, 2010). Indeed, there is growing suspicion that boredom lies behind many socially destructive behaviors, including self-harm, compulsive gambling, and substance use (Mercer & Eastwood, 2010; Weybright, Caldwell, Ram, Smith, & Wegner, 2015). Yet, at the same time, there are calls from public intellectuals for people to experience more boredom in the belief that it leads to greater well-being (Paul, 2019). Who is right? To understand when boredom is good (and when it is bad), we first need to understand what boredom is.
Attention and Meaning: Boredom’s Key Ingredients
If you are reading this, you have almost certainly had the lamentable experience of reading a boring article. We all know the feeling: Dread and irritation build, your mind wanders, you check the clock and remaining page count, or even surrender and sneak a glimpse at your phone. In short, you are bored. But why? There could be something amiss with the environment—too much constraint or too little stimulation or arousal (Berlyne, 1960). According to attentional theories, such environmental features foster understimulation that makes it difficult to focus (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, & Smilek, 2012). There is excellent evidence that difficulty paying attention translates into feelings of boredom and that understimulation can cause inattention. But such theories do not account for times when inattention is the result of overstimulation—too much going on rather than too little—and overlook a greater problem: Sometimes attention is not the issue.
Many functional approaches to boredom set attention aside to consider its underlying purpose; their proponents argue that boredom is a signal meant to alert people to underlying problems, most often concerning goals, meaning, or opportunity costs (e.g., van Tilburg & Igou, 2012). If inattention results in boredom, such individuals argue, it is because inattention is an indirect signal that what you are doing lacks value or meaning. But that does not explain instances when people are bored during otherwise meaningful activities.
Which is it then? Is boredom caused by inattention resulting from understimulation? Or is boredom caused by a lack of meaning? Both are (partially) right.1 The meaning-and-attentional-components (MAC) model of boredom and cognitive engagement unifies past work that has examined attention, meaning, and their environmental correlates in isolation and brings these ideas together to explain what boredom is and why we experience it.

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