His group undertook a thorough review of the existing research on boredom to see whether the connection held up. What they found was encouraging. In a 1989 experiment at Clark University, for example, participants had been asked to read and remember a moderately engaging article while a television played in the next room. If the TV was loud, people described themselves as frustrated—but not bored. If, however, the TV noise was subtle, more people reported feelings of boredom. In both cases, participants’ attention was disrupted. But whereas in the first scenario the cause of the disruption was clear, in the second, there was no apparent reason for the failure of engagement, and so subjects chalked their feelings up to boredom.
In another set of experiments, Bond University psychologist Cynthia Fisher looked at how people reacted to ongoing background conversations as they completed one of three tasks: an assembly task that didn’t need much attention, an uninteresting proofreading task that required monitoring, and a management task that required sustained attention but was also quite interesting. What she found was that boredom didn’t just reflect the nature of the task itself; it was instead a reaction to the environment as a whole. When the task didn’t require much attention, an interesting conversation actually decreased people’s levels of boredom—it entertained them, like a driver listening to the radio or a practiced knitter watching TV. When the task itself was engaging, the conversations didn’t matter: Participants simply tuned them out. It was only the second scenario where the feeling of boredom arose: In a dull task that required focus, background conversations tugged at their attention and led to feelings of boredom.
In study after study of boredom, the same element appeared: attention, whether or not it was called out or considered explicitly in the experiment itself. The papers for the review were chosen for their mention of boredom—but they may as well have been selected for the involvement of attention, so often did the two elements appear together. Based on what they found, the researchers formulated a new hypothesis about how, precisely, the two might be connected: that when you are unable to engage your attention in the task at hand, you start to feel bored.
“Putting attention at the center of the experience...allowed us to explain the subjective experience of boredom: time passing slowly, difficulty focusing, disordered arousal, disrupted agency, negative affect,” said Eastwood. When a task is so simple that it doesn’t require focused attention, he argues, we often can’t find a suitable point of engagement: We’re not expending enough effort to maintain our focus on the activity at hand, and have no other suitable point of engagement to compensate. On the other hand, trying to process an overwhelming environment with a limited amount of attention can also make us feel bored. “When we are in a stimulation-intense environment,” Eastwood said, “we are more likely to experience things as unsatisfying because our attention is being pulled in different directions.”
Understanding boredom and attention as connected has potential to improve how we deal with both. “Because we know quite a lot about how attention operates, this information could allow us to quantify the situations that lead to boredom,” said neuroscientist Jonathan Smallwood of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, who has been studying mind-wandering for the last 15 years. And, he adds, the effect could be reciprocal: “Understanding boredom could provide a novel insight into attention.”
Given that thousands of Americans have been diagnosed with attentional disorders, the insights that emerge from further research stand to be interesting indeed. There are a few promising experimental hints already: In one study, for instance, a team of researchers at the University of Freiburg has found that inducing boredom in subjects caused them to start behaving as if they were suffering from ADHD.
Beyond helping doctors and therapists down the road, a successful unifying theory of boredom stands to help the rest of us in the shorter term. If boredom is rooted in a conflict between our inner focus and our environment, that gives us two possible ways to escape it—one internal and personal, one external and systematic.
As Smallwood points out, the new theory suggests that “we have some responsibility for our own levels of boredom.” Research suggests that even simply taking note of the boredom-provoking conditions we’re in can offer some relief. In a recent series of studies at Cornell University, psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Clayton Critcher asked participants to think about what they’d be doing if they weren’t in the lab: Some were asked to think about leisure, others about obligations. Then, all participants completed a jigsaw puzzle. Afterward, they were asked if their minds had wandered. The more they had daydreamed of positive alternatives—much more common among the students asked to think about leisure—the more bored they felt, interpreting their daydreams of greener pastures as dissatisfaction with the puzzle itself. However, if they were made aware of the mind-wandering manipulation, their boredom symptoms evaporated. Apparently, just tuning into the conflicts that are making us feel bored can go some way toward banishing boredom.Continued...