Debate Magazine

The Impact of Boredom on People’s Behavior

By Stevemiranda

I came across a fascinating article today about a series of studies on boredom. Since the most common complaint about school is that it’s “boring,” this is a subject of great interest to me. The author writes,

Writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, University of Limerick psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou report boredom increases the value we place on groups we feel a part of and decreases the value of those who feel alien to us. They describe five experiments that provide evidence backing up this idea.

Their basic thesis is that boredom is more than a simple lack of stimulation. Rather, they write, bored people experience their lives—or at least the situations they find themselves in at the moment—as fundamentally meaningless.

In [one] experiment, 47 Irish students were assigned to complete a highly repetitive task on their computer screens. Half the participants had to perform this task for twice as long as the others, which—according to their self-reports—left them feeling bored and meaningless.

They then read a fictional scenario in which an Englishman beats up an Irishman and later admits he “was acting on anti-Irish motives.” They were asked to play the role of judge and sentence the man to jail time. The bored participants “allocated substantially more months of prison” than the others.

“These results are consistent with our hypothesis that bored people seek meaningfulness by negatively evaluating the actions of an out-group member that are targeted against an in-group member,” the researchers write.

That’s worth remembering as we watch footage of unemployed young people violently clashing with perceived enemies, be they rival gangs or the authorities. Such uprisings undoubtedly have multiple causes, but perhaps we’re overlooking a surprisingly salient point: These kids are bored.

* * *

When people are engaged in activities that are meaningless, they get bored. When we force kids to take classes on material that is completely irrelevant to lives, they get bored. When a kid asks, “Why are we learning this?” and the answer is, “Because you have a test on it next week,” we’re setting kids up for boredom.

When human beings are trapped in a state of boredom, it distorts their personality. In school, a kid who is constantly in trouble, gets into fights, skips class to be with friends, mouths off to teachers . . . adults typically pathologize the behavior. Instead of identifying the problems with the institution, we assume there’s something wrong with the kid.

Perhaps, however, we’re overlooking a surprisingly salient point: The kid is bored.

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