The Natural Experiment


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.

Photo by CollegeDegrees360 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Photo by QuinnDombrowski via Wunderstock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.”



Producers Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, and Joe Rosenberg spoke with Michelle Fournet, an acoustic ecologist at Cornell; Raghu Karnad, writer for the New Yorker; Sarath Guttikunda, Director of Urban Emissions; Erin Westgate, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Florida; Bernice Hausman, Chair of the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine; Ryan Russo, Director of the Oakland Department of Transportation; Allison Arieff of SPUR.

  1. John Milton

    “A sable cloud turns forth its silver lining on the night.”

    First, thank you for the episode. I enjoyed it very much. But my neuroticism compels me…

    I understand the desire to avoid aggrandizing anything about the pandemic, but man it bugs the hell out of me that the phrase silver lining has become a virtual persona non grata in the language of the day. It’s well-intentioned, but semantically misguided, conflating the meaning of the phrase with something more akin to blessing in disguise. The key here is that claiming a silver lining entails no transmutation or elevation of the central object.

    It would be repugnant to describe covid-19 as a blessing in disguise, obviously. But it is entirely appropriate and not at all insensitive to call the oceanic silence for the whales in Glacier Bay or the relatively clean air in India’s cities a silver lining to covid-19, or more precisely to the shelter-in-place response to cover-19. That’s precisely what those things are and it does not glorify the disease to say so.

  2. Carol Edwards

    Hoping there will be a follow up story on the humpback whale study
    I enjoy this podcast so much!

  3. Joseph Gallagher

    Just after listening to this podcast, I saw this article about a leading anti-vacer in a video describing COVID-19 as a corrupt scheme / hoax being perpetrated on the world. Just as described, many are doubling down on their anti-science, conspiracy laden beliefs.
    The “Plandemic” Video Has Exploded Online — And It Is Filled With Falsehoods
    Love 99%!!!

  4. Sean Redmond

    Surely, boredom is being obliged to do something don’t want to do or, looked at another way, having nothing to do that you want to do.

  5. April

    Anything over 300 on the air quality scale is dangerous. We’ve had 2 years in the last 4 that have had that level in Spokane WA. I have a friend that lived in Indonesia and she said 900 is like sticking your face in the smoke from a campfire.

  6. Nic

    Very interesting episode!

    However, as someone who visited Beijing in 2008 and then lived there full time from 2009 until 2018, this power-of-the-people conception of improvements in air quality is 99% false. The story gives the impression that the glimpse of blue during the Olympics led to widespread pressure from citizens and subsequent policy changes to address air pollution.

    In reality, the government continued to publicly deny air pollution readings in Beijing until the heavily polluted winter of 2013. Between the Olympics and that moment (about 4.5 years), there were no significant changes in air quality or how most people dealt with “the fog”. It’s quite possible that air pollution actually got worse due to increasing electricity consumption, non-stop construction and the ever growing appetite for cars. Until 2013, air purifiers were outrageously expensive and almost exclusively imported machines owned primarily by expats. Proper masks on polluted days were also something you pretty much only saw on expats. Expats, it should be noted, make up an incredibly small fraction of the city’s population. Based on my own experiences, I had the feeling that the overwhelming majority of Beijing citizens didn’t have a clear conception of the pollution problem.

    But after that admission by the government in the winter of 2013, all of a sudden air filters were sold out across the city and, much like the current coronavirus situation, N95 masks immediately became rare and coveted jewels. Despite the public’s awareness at that point, it was probably another 2 or 3 years after that until significant and sustained improvements in air quality came about.

    The whole thing, and I think a large number of experts on Chinese policy would agree, is more of a numbers game than a reaction to public opinion. The government supported the continuation of horrendous pollution because those tiny air particles represented cheap economic growth. When the drawbacks (health problems, decreased productivity, poor international image) started to outweigh the economic benefits, then strong measures were taken to get to the point where Beijing is today.

    India might end up being a different story after this current streak of blue skies because of obvious differences with China in terms of governance. But anyway, the story of Beijing as it was portrayed in the episode, even though it makes the episode tidier, felt quite inaccurate to me and I thought that I should offer this more nuanced version from someone who lived through it.

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