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.
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.
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.
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.”Continued...