Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Boredom and emotion

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Boredom and emotion:
What are the emotional precursors to, and consequences, of boredom

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A man displaying the typical experience of boredom

Do you often experience boredom? You certainly wouldn’t be alone boredom is a phenomenon that affects individuals of both genders and from across all cultures. It can affect people across all situations from being at home, to schools to even people driving behind the wheel. The desire to escape to boredom is even the second most common reason people use smartphones (Elpidorou, 2017a). Even more despite the range of opportunities available to us to satisfy ourselves boredom is still on the rise in western society (Martin, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006). Despite this however very little is known about boredom right from a lack of clear definition, agreement on the antecedents and even how to deal with it. Therefore, the focus here will be on highlighting the antecedents from different perspectives and outlining the consequences that arise from boredom.

What is Boredom?[edit | edit source]

“Boredom is an ambiguous concept” (Belton and Priyadharshini, 2007, as cited in Vogel-Walcutt, Fiorella, Carper, & Schatz, 2012, p. 91) in that a single, universal definition of boredom has remained elusive (Vodanovich, 2003). Due to this lack of definition boredom has often been used interchangeably with similar concepts such as tedium, is often defined in terms of its content or experience, such as experiencing unpleasant emotions, been subject to debate about whether it's an emotion or trait and has even been defined through the methods used to alleviate boredom such as flow (Balzer, Smith, & Burnfield 2004; Vogel-Walcutt, et al., 2012), with this being further complicated by the definition changing depending on what perspective boredom is looked through. However, despite this there have been common themes that emerge across definition[grammar?] such as aversive feelings and a personal evaluation. The working definition here is that boredom is a state which is subjective, temporary, and affective in which both low levels of stimulation and unpleasant feelings are simultaneously experienced.  

Antecedents and Causes of Boredom[edit | edit source]

Summary of Causes

Situation based: boredom due to situational determinants

Person based: boredom due to core characteristics of the person

  • Existential theory: boredom is due to a lack of life meaning
  • Psychoanalytic theory: boredom is due to the individual being unable to access and articulate their desires
  • Cognitive theory: boredom is determined by the capacity to self-regulate attention

Interaction models: boredom is due to an interaction between internal characteristics and situational determinants

  • Arousal theory: boredom is due to the individual's optimal level of arousal being unfulfilled by environmental stimuli

Situation based[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. A souvenir seller bored at work. A common situation where boredom arises.

At a basic level, situational based theories of boredom posit that a situation with the required determinants will produce boredom in most or even all people. Due to the variety of antecedents that have been proposed they will be grouped into three categories: the task as a cause, the environment as the cause and a general other.

The task as a cause defines that boredom resides in the task itself, more specifically it is that the task only provides low levels of stimulation thus resulting in a state of boredom (Balzer, et al., 2004). The task can have a variety of factors that elicit boredom these include: the task being overwhelmingly monotonous, stimulation from the task is extremely scarce, continuous repetition, the level of challenge in the task and the task having a loss of incentives (Martin, et al., 2006; Mercer-Lynn, Bar, & Eastwood, 2014).

The environment, places such as homes, schools and work, that an individual is in can act upon boredom to either increase or alleviate it. A lack of social stimulation and alienation from others can produce feelings of boredom (Martin, et al., 2006). Furthermore, the statements and actions made from people who are unhappy, dull or uncommunicative in an individual's social environment also intensifies feelings of boredom (Balzer, et al., 2004). The mobility that an individual has in their environment, more specifically the level of constraint that exists will often lead to feelings of boredom, in one of three ways. Firstly, the act of being constrained itself as individual’s[grammar?] don’t like losing their mobility and being forced to stay in a particular situation may lead to the individual deeming the situation as boring. Secondly being forced to remain in a low-stimulation setting, and lastly an interaction between the individual’s own desires and the task as even a moderately stimulating task will appear boring when compared to a more desired alternative task (Fisher, 1987).

Lastly a variety of other factors in the environment can interact to increase feelings of boredom. These include obligation, simply being alone, lack of money, exhaustion, tiredness, and having no commitments (Martin, et al., 2006).

Person based[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Existential theory[edit | edit source]

Existential theory posits that boredom is caused by an individual being unable to find meaning or purpose within their life (Mercer-Lynn, et al., 2014). This boredom is defined by existentialists in varying ways with negative affect, a sense or feeling of meaninglessness and a paralysis of agency being at the core of this definition (Bargdill, 2000; Frankl, 2006).

Frankl (2006) posits that having a sense of meaning is of fundamental importance to oneself and to life. Frankl states that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life" with this striving to find and fulfil a sense of meaning being conceptualised as a “will to meaning” which is a unique striving specific to the individual. However when unfulfilled it leads to a existential vacuum which is due to a two-fold loss by man, a loss of basic drives which resulted in the individual being required to make choices and a loss of traditions which resulted in a loss of awareness of meaning resulting in existential distress and the individual being haunted by this inner emptiness within themselves. Thus, resulting in an individual having no instinct telling the individual what they have to do, no traditions telling the individual what they ought to do and situations where the individual themselves doesn’t even know what they wish to do[grammar?]. Rather “he either wishes to do what other people do or he does what other people wish him to do” (Frankl, 2006).

Bargdill (2000) posits that this lack of life meaning is due to an emotional ambivalence that one develops towards life. This life boredom is a process beginning with an individual giving up or diverting attention away from life projects towards lesser projects. This results in anger towards others for allowing them to give in to these compromises, whilst also being inadvertently angry towards oneself, which results in a passive approach being adopted. This passive approach allows for boredom to spread into all aspects of life, resulting in an identity crisis as the individual is no longer actively working towards a goal. This results in feelings of apathy and meaninglessness as the individual feels that every action they do will lead to boredom and therefore any action will essentially be futile.

Example 1

Bargdill (2000) outlines the case of a 49-year-old male, P. P had originally wanted to be an astronomer, but due to failures in his maths course he switched to religion which he was hesitant about but was encouraged by those around him to pursue. However he lost both his faith and believe in himself during collage and since then has become bored and has constantly changed jobs never finishing what he started. With P describing this as he had a brick wall in his life and had lost his vision and excitement for life[grammar?].

Psychoanalytic theory[edit | edit source]

The psychoanalytic theories of boredom are built upon and drawn from psychodynamic views of boredom. The psychodynamic view of boredom states that “Boredom is a feeling of unpleasure arising out of a conflict between a need for intense mental activity and lack of incitement to it, or inability to be incited” (Lipps, 1903, as cited in Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, & Smilek, 2012, pp. 483-484). The psychoanalytic theories agreed on the fact that boredom is a desire for mental engagement and lack of inability to engage this desire. However psychoanalytic theories further build upon this in that the state of boredom is further due to the individual being unable to articulate what it is that they desire or want to do, and as a result look towards the outside world for stimulation and as a result fail to find this stimulation resulting in boredom.

Greenson (1953) highlights that this boredom is a temporary state evident in only those individuals who are of a healthy mind, as those individuals whom have mental disorders are preoccupied with their states of depression, anxiety, obsession and thus unlikely to experience this boredom. Greenson states that boredom consists of the following elements: a slowed perception of time, a conflict between a state of being dissatisfied and unwillingness to state, a sense of desire or longing, an inability to describe what the individual desires, a feeling of emptiness inside, a passive attitude and the hope that the by looking for external stimulation these internal desires can be fulfilled. Essentially this boredom is a stalemate of instincts and desires, however the aims of these is repressed.

Wangh (1975) simply puts that the state of boredom is “a stalemate of the opposing forces in the mind” (p. 538) with the aim of this boredom being to “prevent intrapsychic conflict” (p. 547). Similar to Greenson (1953) this boredom is a not a permanent state rather a temporary state or state of suspension that can be easily interrupted. Within this boredom there a couple of key concepts: the conflict of forces, the lack of a fantasy life and boredom relative to the passage of time. The passage of time refers to an individual’s perception of a slowed passage of time, within this time is said to exist as a dreamlike state with no clear distinction between the past, present and the future and feeling like it’s seemingly endless. The lack of a fantasy life is a crucial feature as the individual has nothing to mobilise or draw upon. This inhibiting of the fantasy life comes out of an unconscious fear that the fantasy may result in actions of a sexual or aggressive nature thus resulting in a lack of fantasy to act upon resulting in boredom. The stalemate of boredom may be manifested in two different ways. The first is an unpleasant feeling of an inability to escape, and in order to justify staying trapped in this situation individuals rationalise, abide by social standards and may be overcome with feelings of guilt. The other is the result of a tension between the pressure for the individual to act upon an unconscious desire and the unpleasantness that comes from the threat of punishment or pain. Thus, resulting in a unstable balance of the two where everything is repressed thus showing boredom. An example of this boredom is seen below in example 2.

Example 2

The patient in question was a male collage student. Whilst he was normally a very imaginative and creative person, he had since become bored after becoming confined to his room due to mononucleosisPictogram voting comment.svg add link to Wikipedia article aka the kissing disease. His boredom was result of a conflict between his sexual fantasies and a fear of the disease.

Cognitive theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive theories of boredom defines[awkward expression?] that how much an individual is susceptible to boredom is determined by their capacity to self-regulate attention. An essential part of cognitive theories is drawn from personal construct theory, in that people will experience the same event differently due to differences in the way stimuli are interpreted. This element is a central part of cognitive theories of boredom with the two major cognitive components as outlined by Hill and Perkins (1985) is a subjective monotony and difficulties in regulating and directing attention.

Figure 3. A woman involved in daydreaming. An attentional deficit involved in boredom

Individual differences in attention may be due to such phenomena as individual differences in levels of distractability[spelling?] and the ability to use cognitive processes to self-stimulate (Todman, 2003). The orienting network of attention selectively allocates an individual’s attention towards relevant and salient information for the task at hand. Boredom occurs when a misallocation of an individual’s attention, disrupts the ability to adequately engage with information relevant to the task at hand, with this heightened by misattributions of the difficulty of a current task and individual performance failures (Eastwood, et al., 2012). Executive processes involved in attention affect upon boredom for example mood monitoring the tendency to direct attention towards ones[grammar?] mood is positively correlated with boredom proneness, as those individuals who have higher mood monitoring will require greater effort to focus on a task which in turn will result in more experiences of boredom (Harris, 2000). Executive failures in directing attention such as the case of mind-wandering or daydreaming, and in sustaining attention over long periods of time, known as vigilance decrement, will also make the individual more likely to experience periods of boredom (Eastwood et al., 2012).

Subjective monotony is the individual’s own view that the environment or situation that they are currently in is monotonous or boring. A variety of factors contribute to this view such as: qualitative underload a situation where the requirements of the task are simple, repetitive or infrequently occurring events, an uninteresting environment caused by other people, the level of autonomy an individual has in the environment, the individual’s own mental capacity, personality characteristics such as those high in extroversion, gender differences with men more likely to experience boredom due to traditions making them more prone to stimulus seeking, current concerns and cultural differences (Fisher, 1993; Sundberg, Latkin, Farmer, & Saoud, 1991). However, whilst all these factors contribute one of main factors contributing to this monotony is schema complexity (Fisher, 1993). Those individuals who possess a more complex set of schema allows for that individual to understand and appreciate more of the variety and information which exists in a set situation. This complex schema allows for individual to make more constructs and distinctions on tasks thus resulting in higher engagement and less chance of becoming bored, however this defence only holds for moderate or complex tasks. The inverse is also true as those individuals whom possess simple schema or no schemas for that type of environment will become subject to subjective monotony and thus becoming bored.

Interaction models[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Arousal theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Model of the Flow State by Csikszentmihalyi (1990)

At a basic level arousal theory posit that boredom occurs when an individual’s optimal level of arousal is not met by environmental stimuli. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) conceptualises boredom in terms of flow. Flow occurs when the individual experiences what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “optimal experience”, which is a state when the individuals perceive that the opportunities for action (challenges) are evenly matched to their capabilities (skills). Boredom is experienced when there is deviance from this optimal experience in situations where the individual is under challenged in that their skills are greater than the challenges that they are using for them.

DeChenne (1988) outlines a model of boredom, called the modified action model, to which there exists four variables: activation, orientation, needs and skills. Within this modified action model predicts that those who are most prone to boredom will have a high customary activation, an external orientation, frustrated needs and low skill levels with an interaction of these variables making boredom more likely. Customary activation is a two-fold notion with there being both a physiological and a psychological component. The physiological component refers to activation of the central nervous system, in particular the activation of the reticular formation, whilst the psychological component refers to feelings of arousal such as heightened attention and excitement. DeChenne outlines that as each individual has a custom level of activation needed, individuals strive to maintain an arousal level at that activation, however when this arousal falls below that level of activation boredom ensues, thus an individual with a high level of activation will have difficulty in finding stimuli to reach this level resulting in boredom within the individual. Orientation has two sides with the individuals primary focus being either on external stimuli within their environment or internally as sources of arousal. Individuals who have a strong external focus will often be prone to situations where this environment is unable to satisfy the individual’s arousal causing feelings of boredom to ensue. Needs within this model is not focused on stimulation but rather individual differences, with these needs being both psychological and physiological depending on the individual. For boredom to be explained within a needs sense “there must be attention to the content of an individual's specific interests and needs, and to how those needs are or are not addressed by environmental stimulation” (p. 74). Therefore, individual’s become bored when the content of the environment is either unrelated to their needs or is frustrating to their needs. Skills comprises an “individual’s intellectual abilities, aptitudes, creativity, and social skills” (p. 75). These skills are tools that the individual uses to help select out stimulus content from the environment and to manage the impact of the stimuli has on maintaining the individual’s level of arousal. Therefore if an individual lacks the skills needed to gain arousal from the environment boredom will ensue, with boredom and skills having an inverse relationship as when skills decrease the chance of boredom becomes more likely.  

Consequences of Boredom[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Physiological consequences[edit | edit source]

Whilst any lasting physiological consequences from boredom have yet to be identified, there have been some physiological impacts that have been found during or shortly after periods of boredom. These are rising heart rate levels, decreased electrodermal activity, increased cortisol levels, increased presence of alpha waves which is linked with mental fatigue, lowered beta activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and activation of parts of the default mode network (Elpidorou, 2017b; Merrifield & Danckert, 2014).

Psychological Consequences[edit | edit source]

Boredom has a range of psychological consequences on an individual both during a state of boredom and afterwards, however despite this range boredom is typically found to be associated with more negative consequences. This view is also typically held in common society as individuals typically view that boredom only has a negative impact on mental health and is associated with feelings of guilt, frustration and restlessness (Martin, et al., 2006; Weissinger, 1995). A word of caution however as a vast majority of these consequences are only associated or correlated with boredom. These consequences include: anger, hostility, aggression, depression, anxiety, dysphoria, apathy, anhedonia , susceptibility to obsessive and compulsive symptoms , hopelessness, neuroticism and a general state of negative affect (Dahlen, Martin, Ragan, & Kuhlman, 2004; Fahlman, Mercer-Lynn, Flora, & Eastwood, 2011; Malkovsky, Merrifield, Goldberg, & Danckert, 2012; Mercer-Lynn, Flora, Fahlman, & Eastwood, 2011; Sommers & Vodanovich, 2000; Vodanovich, 2003; Vodanovich & Watt, 2015). However, despite all this there are some positive consequences. Boredom can act as a regulatory state to help restore the perception that an individual’s actions are meaningful, it promotes goal directed movement which is essential for well-being, promotes personal growth and helps to foster creativity (Elpidorou, 2014, 2017b).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 The three main categories of boredom causes are situation based, trait based and interaction based.


2 Psychoanalytic theories of boredom are built upon on the psychodynamic perspective.


3 Which of the following is not a component of the modified action model?


4 Which of the following is a listed consequence of boredom?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Boredom remains an elusive character with there being many attempts to explain it. Causes of boredom have been posed from varying areas being situational, personal and interactionist categories. Boredom has been shown to be associated with a range of adverse emotional consequences and physical consequences which in turn have their own impact on individuals. However despite this common themes emerge across theories particularly ideas relating to a sense of monotony, a lack of something whether it be meaning or stimulation and a sense of not knowing what to do with oneself. Thus, it can be concluded that boredom will remain this mysterious character until three things are established, a concrete definition of what boredom is, what exactly are the causes behind boredom and what are definitive consequences of boredom[vague].

See Also[edit | edit source]

Boredom (Wikipedia)

Boredom and motivation (Book chapter, 2015)

References[edit | edit source]

Balzer, W. K., Smith, P. C., & Burnfield, J. L. (2004). Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, 1, 289-294.

Bargdill, R. W. (2000). The Study of Life Boredom. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 31(2),188-219.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of flow in work and play. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dahlen, E. R., Martin, R. C., Ragan, K., & Kuhlman, M. M. (2004). Boredom proneness in anger and aggression: effects of impulsiveness and sensation seeking. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(8), 1615-1627.

DeChenne, T. K. (1988). Boredom as Clinical Issue. Psychotherapy, 25(1), 71-81.

Eastwood, J. D., Frishcen, A., Fenske, M. J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged Mind : Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482-495.

Elpidorou, A. (2014). The bright side of boredom. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1245.

Elpidorou, A. (2017a). The bored mind is a guiding mind: toward a regulatory theory of boredom. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 17(3), 455–484.

Elpidorou, A. (2017b). The good of boredom. Philosophical Psychology, 31(3), 323-351.

Fahlman, S. A., Mercer-Lynn, K. B., Flora, D. B., & Eastwood, J. D. (2011). Development and Validation of the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale. Assessment, 20(1), 68-85.

Fisher, C.D. (1987). Boredom: Construct, Causes and Consequences (Technical Report ONR‐9). College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.

Fisher, C. D. (1993). Boredom at Work: A Neglected Concept. Human Relations, 46(3), 395–417.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Greenson, R. R. (1953). On Boredom. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1(1), 7-21.

Harris, M. B. (2000). Correlates and Characteristics of Boredom Proneness and Boredom. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(3), 576-598.

Hill, A. B., & Perkins, R. E. (1985). Towards a model of boredom. British Journal of Psychology, 76(2), 235-240.

Martin, M., Sadlo, G., & Stew, G. (2006). The phenomenon of boredom. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(3), 193-211.

Malkovsky, E., Merrifield, C., Goldberg, Y., & Danckert, J. (2012). Exploring the relationship between boredom and sustained attention. Experimental Brain Research, 221(1), 59-67.

Mercer-Lynn, K. B., Bar, R. J., & Eastwood, J. D. (2014). Causes of boredom: The person, the situation, or both?. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 122-126.

Mercer-Lynn, K. B., Flora, D. B., Fahlman, S. A., & Eastwood, J. D. (2011). The Measurement of Boredom: Differences Between Existing Self-Report Scales. Assessment, 20(5), 585-596.

Merrifield, C., & Danckert, J. (2014). Characterizing the psychophysiological signature of boredom. Experimental Brain Research, 23(2), 481-491. 10.1007/s00221-013-3755-2

Sommers, J., & Vodanovich, S. J. (2000). Boredom Proneness: Its Relationship to Psychological- and Physical-Health Symptoms. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56(1), 149-155.<149::aid-jclp14>;2-y

Sundberg, N. D., Latkin, C. A., Farmer, R. F., & Saoud, J. (1991). Boredom in Young Adults: Gender and Cultural Comparisons. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 22(2), 209-223.

Todman, M. (2003). Boredom and Psychotic Disorders: Cognitive and Motivational Issues. Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 66(2),146-67.

Vodanovich, S. J. (2003). Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature. The Journal of Psychology, 137(6), 569-595.

Vodanovich, S. J., & Watt, J. D. (2015). Self-Report Measures of Boredom: An Updated Review of the Literature. The Journal of Psychology, 150(2), 196-228.

Vogel-Walcutt, J.J., Fiorella, L., Carper, T., & Schatz, S. (2012). The Definition, Assessment, and Mitigation of State Boredom Within Educational Settings: A Comprehensive Review. Educational Psychology Review, 24(1), 89-111.

Wangh, M. (1975). Boredom in Psychoanalytic Perspective. Social Research, 42(3), 538-550. Retrieved from

Weissinger, E. (1995). Effects of Boredom on Self-Reported Health. Loisir et Société / Society and Leisure, 18(1), 21-32.

External Links[edit | edit source]

Boredom definition (APA dictionary)