Erin Westgate is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida, who studies social cognition and emotion, with a focus on interest, thinking, and — yes — boredom. Although boredom may be a curious subset of psychology to study, Westgate says one good reason to study it is that most people don’t have the first clue about how boredom works… including their own.
Westgate’s own research into boredom started accidentally when she was studying how much people enjoy being left alone with their own thoughts. One experiment she ran showed that about one-quarter of women and two-thirds of men would rather expose themselves to an electric shock — even though they claimed they didn’t enjoy it — rather than simply sit and think for 15 minutes.
Westgate says that in the last two decades there has been a growing consensus that boredom is, in fact, a real emotion, like anger or sadness. And just like other emotions, it’s not intrinsically good or bad. Instead, it’s a signal telling you something is amiss with your situation that needs to be changed somehow. But when it comes to the question of “Why do we get bored?” — that’s where the scientific consensus ends. “When you get down to the nitty-gritty of what exactly is causing boredom, you’re going to start finding a lot of disagreement.”
Some researchers point toward the attentional model—the idea being that you get bored when you’re stuck doing something that requires only a little attention so the rest of your attentional capacity is looking for something else to do, and the task loses all meaning. But some researchers think that’s completely backward. They think that if you’re bored, it’s because the task you are focusing on wasn’t meaningful. This is the meaning-based model. Proponents of this model point out that you could work on a challenging puzzle that requires the right amount of attention, but if you don’t find it genuinely interesting, it’s still boring. Or conversely, you can do something repetitive and simple, but if you think it’s saving lives, you won’t necessarily get bored. Westgate currently uses a model that combines both attention and meaning.
Another question Westgate is trying to address is “How do we respond to boredom?” In part because the answer to this question can have serious public health consequences. We know there are certain correlations between people reporting being bored and things like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-harm… but we also know that experiences of boredom can sometimes correlate to people pursuing healthy behaviors, like education and exercise. So this is an important question: Do most people, when they’re bored, start doing something healthy or something unhealthy?
Westgate says answering questions like this, and discovering what kind of activities people turn to when bored, can be really hard to study in a lab setting for the simple reason that when you confine people to a lab, you can’t actually give them that many options of things to do.
But when you try to study people’s behavior in the real world, there’s a different problem. Most people just don’t stay bored for very long. Instead, they are only bored for a few minutes at a time, all adding up to about 30 minutes a day so it can be hard to catch them in the act of being truly bored.
This is where the mandatory lockdowns caused by COVID-19 come in. People stuck at home are now going to be potentially more bored, more often than ever before, so Westgate and one of her graduate students, Yijun Lin, have set themselves to finding out what activities people choose, including something that is almost by definition impossible to study in the lab: novelty seeking. In other words, people pursuing activities that haven’t pursued previously. (There’s even an online study you can join if you want to help Westgate and Lin find out what kind of weird and wonderful things you yourself get up to when bored.)
No matter what they find, Westgate wants to remind people that boredom is neither good nor bad, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. “It’s healthy, it’s adaptive. We would not get very far without it. Boredom makes sure that we stay engaged in the world. And it doesn’t feel good, but that’s okay. It just depends on how we react to it.”