Boredom is a common experience – we experience it every day, often multiple times a day. People who are prone to experiencing boredom frequently are more likely to engage in a number of impulsive behaviors, including gambling, substance abuse, binge eating, and dropping out of school. Despite its frequency of occurrence and relation to negative outcomes, modern experimental psychology has largely ignored the effects of boredom until recently.
We proposed that boredom, like other emotions, occurs in response to a specific situation and organizes physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. The situation that elicits boredom appears to be the perception that the current situation is no longer satisfying, and the experience of boredom organizes reactions to identify and pursue alternative activities that could be more satisfying. In other words, what you’re doing now is no longer satisfying, and boredom prompts you to look around for other options. Exactly what “satisfying” entails is a matter of debate. Some researchers have argued that satisfying activities are those that are personally meaningful. We have suggested that satisfying activities are those that are related to individuals’ goals, and could be aimed toward short or long-term goal pursuits. For example, boredom could prompt people to engage in an existentially meaningful examination of future plans, but it could also prompt people to play Candy Crush (which gives the illusion of goal pursuit).
In many studies people report that boredom is extremely aversive and unpleasant. In a series of recently completed studies, we randomly assigned participants to a boredom condition (viewing a long series of positive or neutral images) or a non-boredom condition (viewing a short series of images). Participants in the boredom condition expressed a preference for new experiences and they were more likely to choose novel over familiar images to view next. This preference for novelty was so strong that bored participants were even more likely to choose to view new negative images (e.g., cockroaches) over familiar positive images. These findings suggest that boredom creates a “seeking state” that motivates people to seek out new situations and stimuli, and that boredom is so unpleasant that people would rather view disgusting images than experience boredom.
Studies in our lab and other labs are currently exploring the relationships between boredom and creativity, mind wandering, and self-regulation. Given the ubiquity of boredom across individuals and cultures, this work has the potential to shed light on a core facet of human experience.
Heather C. Lench is Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.