A not so boring study about Boredom

Waiting in the line for tickets, sitting in a two- hour meeting, listening to a history lecture...there are so many instances and situations that make me bored just thinking about them. While facing situations that fail to meet our expectations and desires, we often lose interest in what we are doing, and get physically and mentally uncomfortable. We feel a dire need to escape from such situations and our mind wanders to do something else in an utter opposite contrast.

“Often, boredom is situational: it is brought about by the unchallenging, monotonous, or repetitive situations in which we find ourselves” - (O'Hanlon, 1981)

The levels of boredom can be from being in an apathetic situation, to becoming aware that we are bored, to inflicting that in our outside environment. The expressions would be through our face, body posture and, interactivity with nearby objects. Remember the fidget spinner? Yes, we got bored of it as a collective society. In a study conducted in 2015, the participants were more likely to choose receiving small amounts of electrical shocks, than to take a seat in a completely blank room for some minutes [1].

We always need some novelty to flee these sensations of boredom. In another study conducted as a computer quiz, when the quiz was made to insult those who got questions wrong and praise those who got them correct, the participants felt more engaged with the quiz compared to the study without these small cues [2]. Boredom is a state which is about ourselves as much as it is about the world.



Have you ever opened your refrigerator at home even though you are not hungry and know there is nothing inside? For some people it will be psychological conditioning. Normally, we might open the fridge, find some food that we would like to eat. During this example, the “opening the fridge” is the action/behavior, so “finding and eating food” is the reward. Because there was a reward for the action that we did, it's most likely that action is happening again.

In studies of binge-eating, for example, boredom is one of the frequent triggers [3], hence when people are bored and hungry, they'll automatically go near the fridge and open it because that action has resulted in them finding something before. Once they see no food within the fridge they'll close the door again because there's nothing that they want to eat. Sometimes, they're going to return again, expecting food to have magically appeared. This is often due to the strength of the conditioning. Sometimes, it's a restart button for our brain.

“The state of boredom is one from which we seek to escape. While bored, one is thus restless, for one is not content with one's current situation and one wishes to be doing something else.” (van Tilburg and Igou, 2012)


Does this experience apply only to refrigerators? Absolutely not. Similarly, we do the same with some of the apps on our mobile phone or desktop, like WhatsApp. At some point of time, even if we weren't expecting any messages, we would still open them and see if there are new messages, unless you are a person with commitments. But, what if you opened the refrigerator and new food appeared every time you opened, with the variety of cuisines that you prefer? That would be amazing right? You will start coming to the fridge with confidence to find something and positively end up consuming whatever food you love.

Twitter & Instagram for this instance, are great examples of tapping the general users with this reward conditioning. These users almost always get fresh stories every time they open or ‘swipe down’. They get the content they love because of the accounts they chose to follow, and suggested content spoon feeding by the same social media. These cannot thrive if it wasn't for boredom.

Boredom thus facilitates the pursuit of alternative goals: it “pushes” us out of these non-stimulating, uninteresting, or unchallenging situations and into another. Boredom is important. It promotes our interests by trying to keep us in touch with what we care about. It safeguards us from emotional traps and long-term dullness.