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Could boredom be curable?

An elusive human annoyance may finally be yielding its secrets

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You’re driving to work one morning when you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam. You’re sitting in math class, listening to your teacher explain the afternoon’s lesson. You’re labeling envelopes to send out party invitations, letter after letter after letter. What do these seemingly unrelated experiences share? They have the potential to be unbelievably boring.

Boredom is more than just one of life’s minor irritations. It has been implicated in drug use and alcoholism, problematic gambling and compulsive behavior—and has even been tied to potentially lethal errors in job execution. Bored nuclear military personnel perform less reliably than colleagues engaged in their work; bored airline pilots become more likely to rely heavily, and dangerously, on automated processes.

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Philosophers and scientists alike have found ways to describe boredom as an experience, from the ochlos of ancient Greeks to the unresolved conflicts of modern psychodynamic theory. But when it comes to what actually triggers boredom, an answer has remained elusive. Boredom can occur in a perplexingly broad range of situations and seems to involve both our external environment and our inner resources.

Now, after an exhaustive survey of every study they could locate that mentioned boredom—over 100 are referenced in the final ­paper—a group of psychologists from York University in Canada has proposed an answer, essentially a new unified theory of boredom. In a new review paper published this fall in Perspectives on Psychological Science, cognitive psychologist John Eastwood and his team suggest all boredom may result from essentially the same thing: a conflict of attention, or attention misfocused in a way that disrupts our engagement. Sometimes the problem is that there is too much competing for our attention, sometimes too little. In all cases, they argue, boredom has as much to do with our inner response to our circumstances as to the circumstances themselves.

If they are right, and boredom is closely connected to the well-studied field of attention, then it may pave the way to seeing boredom as something that we can manipulate deliberately—and perhaps even alleviate. “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.”

The team at York has now begun experimental work to test the precise connection between boredom and attention. What they’re learning stands to open up a new way to understand what’s happening in our minds when we feel bored. Potentially, that could not only improve our private abilities to escape boredom, but also help us take public, systemic precautions to head off conflicts of attention—and reduce the most dangerous consequences of a bored mind.

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For centuries, people have tried to understand why it is that we feel bored. In the early 1900s, psychoanalytic theorists speculated that people became bored out of unfulfilled unconscious desire. Midcentury existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, by contrast, saw boredom as a fundamental philosophical crisis, what Schopenhauer once termed “the feeling of the emptiness of life.” Within the modern psychology establishment, theories grew more refined. Beginning in the 1960s, arousal theorists described boredom as the result of a mismatch between our need for arousal and the ability of our environment to meet it; cognitive theorists put the emphasis on individual perception of the environment as monotonous or uninteresting, whether or not it actually is so. What all of these ways of thinking about boredom had in common, however, was that they were fundamentally descriptive, without suggesting a testable causal origin for boredom—or, accordingly, any solutions.

A loud TV in the background made people frustrated trying to read. A more subtle TV sound made them feel bored.

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Eastwood, who is also a clinician, developed an interest in boredom out of work with patients. In particular, patients with chronic depression mentioned boredom frequently, but, he said in an interview, “there was very little on it in the academic literature.” Eastwood wondered whether boredom might not be just another facet of depression, but in a series of studies, he and his colleagues established that, when quantitatively measured through psychological tests and assessments, the two states were quite distinct.

What he did find, through a series of studies that looked at boredom and depression and through interviews with patients, was a common factor that appeared to link both depression and boredom. “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.”

His group undertook a thorough review of the existing research on boredom to see whether the connection held up. What they found was encouraging. In a 1989 experiment at Clark University, for example, participants had been asked to read and remember a moderately engaging article while a television played in the next room. If the TV was loud, people described themselves as frustrated—but not bored. If, however, the TV noise was subtle, more people reported feelings of boredom. In both cases, participants’ attention was disrupted. But whereas in the first scenario the cause of the disruption was clear, in the second, there was no apparent reason for the failure of engagement, and so subjects chalked their feelings up to boredom.

In another set of experiments, Bond University psychologist Cynthia Fisher looked at 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. What she found was that boredom didn’t just reflect the nature of the task itself; it was instead a reaction to the environment as a whole. When the task didn’t require much attention, an interesting conversation actually decreased people’s levels of boredom—it entertained them, like a driver listening to the radio or a practiced knitter watching TV. When the task itself was engaging, the conversations didn’t matter: Participants simply tuned them out. It was only the second scenario where the feeling of boredom arose: In a dull task that required focus, background conversations tugged at their attention and led to feelings of boredom.

In study after study of boredom, the same element appeared: attention, whether or not it was called out or considered explicitly in the experiment itself. The papers for the review were chosen for their mention of boredom—but they may as well have been selected for the involvement of attention, so often did the two elements appear together. Based on what they found, the researchers formulated a new hypothesis about how, precisely, the two might be connected: that when you are unable to engage your attention in the task at hand, you start to feel bored.

“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 a task is so simple that it doesn’t require focused attention, he argues, we often can’t find a suitable point of engagement: We’re not expending enough effort to maintain our focus on the activity at hand, and have no other suitable point of engagement to compensate. On the other hand, trying to process an overwhelming environment with a limited amount of attention can also make us feel bored. “When we are in a stimulation-intense environment,” Eastwood said, “we are more likely to experience things as unsatisfying because our attention is being pulled in different directions.”

Understanding boredom and attention as connected has potential to improve how we deal with both. “Because we know quite a lot about how attention operates, this information could allow us to quantify the situations that lead to boredom,” said neuroscientist Jonathan Smallwood of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, who has been studying mind-wandering for the last 15 years. And, he adds, the effect could be reciprocal: “Understanding boredom could provide a novel insight into attention.”

Given that thousands of Americans have been diagnosed with attentional disorders, the insights that emerge from further research stand to be interesting indeed. There are a few promising experimental hints already: In one study, for instance, a team of researchers at the University of Freiburg has found that inducing boredom in subjects caused them to start behaving as if they were suffering from ADHD.

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Beyond helping doctors and therapists down the road, a successful unifying theory of boredom stands to help the rest of us in the shorter term. If boredom is rooted in a conflict between our inner focus and our environment, that gives us two possible ways to escape it—one internal and personal, one external and systematic.

As Smallwood points out, the new theory suggests that “we have some responsibility for our own levels of boredom.” Research suggests that even simply taking note of the boredom-provoking conditions we’re in can offer some relief. In a recent series of studies at Cornell University, psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Clayton Critcher asked participants to think about what they’d be doing if they weren’t in the lab: Some were asked to think about leisure, others about obligations. Then, all participants completed a jigsaw puzzle. Afterward, they were asked if their minds had wandered. The more they had daydreamed of positive alternatives—much more common among the students asked to think about leisure—the more bored they felt, interpreting their daydreams of greener pastures as dissatisfaction with the puzzle itself. However, if they were made aware of the mind-wandering manipulation, their boredom symptoms evaporated. Apparently, just tuning into the conflicts that are making us feel bored can go some way toward banishing boredom.

Then there are the more systemic weapons—for example, change the furniture. “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.”

Still, even these safeguards may not be enough to stave off the boredom of the multitasking, technologically connected modern mind. The greater the possible distractions, Eastwood suggested, the less we’re able to deal with boredom. “It’s like quicksand,” he said. “If we thrash around, we end up making it much, much worse.”

And we also end up not knowing what to do with ourselves when those distractions are suddenly removed. In an ongoing study, Wilson observes college students who are left alone in a room, with no phone or other distractions, for 15 minutes. “They hate it,” he said. “One would think we could spend that time mentally entertaining ourselves. But we can’t. We’ve forgotten how.”

Maria Konnikova is the author of the upcoming “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” (Viking, January 2013), and writes the Literally Psyched blog for Scientific American.
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