• Ted Fraser

Understanding Boredom


In the early 20th century, there was a lot of concern surrounding low productivity among assembly line workers. It was no doubt a serious issue. The Industrial Revolution provided new technology which allowed for increased economic growth. In order to maximize prosperity, however, workers had to be productive.

The British government was so interested in this subject that they formed the Industrial Fatigue Research Board in 1920. As the name suggests, they believed fatigue was the main reason for diminished productivity. At first glance, this would seem to make sense; for labourers, working in the early 1900s meant waking up early and going home late. The board hypothesized that the gruelling work schedule didn’t allow workers adequate time to relax and recharge.

Indeed, it has been reported that the average worker during that period would work an average of 60 hours a week. Starting work before sunrise and continuing for 10 hours straight in a poorly-ventilated and cramped manufacturing facility increased the probability of physical decline – and thus a decline in productivity.

However, when the board hired a psychologist – Stanley Wyatt – to confirm their hypothesis, he found that it wasn’t fatigue that was affecting productivity. It was boredom.

Boredom is one of the most peculiar and unique human emotions. Unlike other emotions such as fear, anxiety, and disgust – which direct your attention towards someone or something – boredom functions in the opposite way. It signals that you should direct your attention away from the matter at hand, and that what you’re doing is not worthwhile.

Indeed, Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with this idea, stating “Boredom is useful because you don’t want an organism that just does the same thing over and over again without learning anything. It would be good to equip that organism with an emotion, an urge to move on when they don’t think that they’re learning anything new.”

Humans are constantly weighing the pros and cons of how to optimally spend our mental energy. When the cost-benefit analysis indicates that what we’re doing is not significant or helpful, we get bored. Amanda Markey, a microeconomics student who wrote her PhD dissertation on boredom, asserts that the basis of this theory is that, “boredom is a way to signal that you’re mismanaging scarce resources.”

Obviously, the state of being bored is determined by what you’re doing at a certain point in time. If you’re listening to a long, monotonous speech, you’ll be bored. However, how you judge the value (or lack thereof) of what you’re doing could not only based on what you’re doing, but also based on what you’re not doing, or the opportunity cost.

This theory has not been proven completely, but George Lowenstien, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, asserts it could be true; it’s just that he and his fellow researchers haven’t been able to unequivocally prove it yet.

This suggests that, for instance, boredom among Citadel High students would be relatively common on a nice, sunny day in June and rare on a cold, rainy day in February.

However, the human brain is not perfect. For example, what you believe to be boring, another person might think to be supremely interesting. There is no objective definition of what’s boring and what isn’t, or what’s worthwhile and what’s a waste of time. If you get bored studying chemistry, that doesn’t mean chemistry is useless – it just emphasizes the subjectivity of boredom. (Or, you could be bored because you are simply studying inefficiently, and your brain is trying to tell you to focus harder.)

Understanding boredom is significant in that it lets us know that what we are doing or what we are experiencing is not useful, and that our time would be better spent elsewhere. Chances are that, at one point or another in your life, you’ve been bored. Perhaps it was while scrolling through your MySpace feed, or while listening to a lecture in Math class. Whatever the situation, boredom serves the same purpose, and how it functions has a profound impact on how we act and make decisions.

This article was inspired by a 'Freakonomics' podcast episode. It can be listened to at: http://freakonomics.com/2015/10/29/am-i-boring-you-a-new-freakonomics-radio-episode/