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Studies on boredom address a yawning gap in research

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Long ignored by scientists, feeling is linked to anxiety, depression, binge eating

Kate Allen, Science & Technology Reporter

The research subjects are asked to watch a video of two men hanging laundry. Or another on how to make concrete. They might be asked to transcribe the references from an academic article, or take a phone book and cross out every letter “a.”

In all cases, the experiment is seemingly simple: to induce boredom.

“You just want to poke your eyes out,” says John Eastwood, a professor of psychology at York University.

For more than a century, boredom has been mostly ignored as a topic of sustained research. Boredom, part of the furniture of life, was itself too trivial to investigate.

But in recent years, psychologists have begun to probe common thought processes that were once uncommonly studied: nostalgia, daydreaming, mind-wandering. In the case of boredom, that research is beginning to sketch the contours of a dynamic mental state, one with a web of associations to other behaviours, both negative and positive
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In ongoing research at his University of Waterloo lab, cognitive neuroscience professor James Danckert is investigating whether individuals who choose a scattered, disorganized approach in a berry-picking digital game are more boredom-prone.

Danckert is interested in self-regulatory “fit”: the idea that boredom arises when an individual has a goal but chooses a plan of action that doesn’t match that goal, whether because they get distracted, can’t compel themselves to even start or any number of other reasons.

Both Danckert and Eastwood caution against concluding that boredom is a pathological mental state. Boredom is an uncomfortable feeling that we will take drastic steps to try to eliminate. Perhaps some steps, like binge-eating or endlessly streaming Netflix, are simply counterproductive.

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bored woman on park bench

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