Investigating the Psychological Causes of Boredom

A Psychological Problem

Boredom can impact people in a variety of ways, affecting elements such as their mental and physical state. Psychologists now pay more attention to this phenomenon as they realize that it is a growing problem among people of all ages. They seek an answer to the root of this problem in order to better understand and deal with the predominant issues that they often see in bored individuals, however, psychologists still struggle to find the psychological base of boredom. Some of the usual effects of this disinterest include feelings of discomfort, anxiety, helplessness, and apathy, which originate in a person’s mind. I believe that there are two theories that can account for a person’s feelings and actions when bored, cognitive dissonance and reactance.


On the Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Boredom

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person experiences discomfort or anxiety due to apprehension of moral conflicts between their actions and beliefs. These unpleasant emotions are consistent with what a person might feel when bored. When someone is doing something boring, they want to do something else and often think of other things that would be time better spent. This causes a feeling of discomfort to develop in the person. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that because this person’s actions don’t reflect his or her beliefs, he or she will attempt to minimize the emotional discomfort by modifying either their actions or thoughts. The most common way of reducing dissonance is to justify one’s actions, which can be done in several ways. We tend to either change out beliefs to fit our actions, change our actions to fit our beliefs, or make excuses and blame an external source.


It’s One or the Other

Modifying actions to fit one’s beliefs is the truest way to reduce dissonance. In this way, one can alleviate the uneasy feelings they experience because they can link their actions to their beliefs without comprising their morals. In the case of boredom, a person could be motivated by the unpleasant feelings that he or she experiences, stimulating the need for variation in activity. For example, at a mundane office job, getting up to take a walk can be therapeutic and reduce anxiety for a short duration because he or she doesn’t want to be sitting at a desk. Most of the time, this results in a short break from boredom and renewed interest.


Changing an existing belief to fit actions also decreases dissonance because it makes beliefs and actions more consistent with each other. This method is more complex than changing actions. A belief is most likely to be altered when an individual has no strong feelings about it or if a situation challenges that belief in a hard to counteract way. Take for example a person entering a discussion that they haven’t encountered before. If at first this person thought that the topic in question would be boring, to reduce his or her dissonance, he or she will change his or her attitudes and believe that the topic is interesting.


A State of Irritation and Inattention

The following are the thoughts of a student sitting in a boring college class. It seems like an increasing amount of students find their classes boring, and they aren’t afraid to show it.


Why am I here? I don’t want to be here, but I’m determined to try to get something out of this class today. 75 minutes.


I never learn anything in this class; it’s half a review from Chemistry 1, even though this is Chemistry 2. Might as well call it Advance Chemistry 1. 70 minutes.


I’m so bored that I don’t feel like paying attention. I could be doing more productive things with my time. 65 minutes.


I feel uncomfortable with how I’m spending time. I’m bored. 60 minutes.


I wonder what’s new on Twitter. 60 minutes


Well, nothing on Twitter, time to play Candy Crush. 55 minutes


Wow, she’s still talking about the Chemistry 1 topic that she was ten minutes ago. It feels like it’s been twenty minutes. I’m leaving. 45 minutes


Here, the student is changing his actions to be more consistent with his thoughts. He believes that the class is boring and he could be doing better things with his time, so he decides to leave.


It’s Not My Fault

After another company took over his company, Jack was unemployed. He sat at home every day combing through job search engines in search of work. Six months later, he couldn’t believe that no company would hire him despite his credentials. He felt trapped and bored by the same routine every day that yielded no results. His expectations led him to believe that he should have a job, but he was never contacted by any businesses. In his mind, he didn’t want to sit at home continuing this jobless trend without anything interesting to do, but he couldn’t help it. “It’s not my fault,” he insisted. At first, he blamed his boredom on the poor economy and thin job market to make himself feel better about not working. He was sure that when the economy turned around, he would be able to find a job and be free of his cyclical schedule. However, when the economy did recover, he still couldn’t find a job. He found that his anxiety returned and sought a way to get rid of it again. Now he thought that he couldn’t find a job because the employers were stupid and didn’t recognize a good worker. Jack’s apprehensive feeling went away after two weeks of asserting that employers didn’t know what a good worker was. Six months later, Jack finally found a job in an office with a local company. He continues to work for this company and doesn’t feel discomfort anymore when thinking about his employment. This situation is unique in that it is an instance where excuses are made to justify the difference between their beliefs and actions.


On Reactance

Reactance occurs when an individual perceives a threat to his or her freedom. When this happens, people often overcompensate in their actions to relieve the unwanted feelings of irritation and helplessness. Often, these actions are impulsive and sometimes harmful. When people experience boredom, they feel like it takes away their freedom and as a result, they act on this in a way similar to cognitive dissonance. However, there is a distinction between the way reactance and cognitive dissonance stimulate a response. Dissonance causes a reaction to reduce stressed feelings, whereas reactance causes one to take back a lost freedom.


You Can Learn (Some) From Commercials

Click here to watch

About a year ago, DirecTV launched an advertising campaign to promote their satellite TV over cable TV. Part of these commercials involves a chain reaction of events that escalate quickly into something unpleasant. This commercial, while comical, illustrates reactance. The man feels trapped by the cable company, and his need to not feel trapped leads to a series of events that ends with his dad getting punched over a can of soup. This parallels boredom because it often evokes a feeling of restriction. Some may do anything to escape this apathy, and, in their efforts, cause unwanted consequences, such as your dad getting punched over a can of soup.


Well That Escalated Quickly- A Commercial Screenplay



A middle-aged man sits on a couch in his living room. He seems tired and frustrated.



When you feel bored, you feel restricted. When you feel restricted you want to feel free.



The man get into his black Dodge Charger and backs out of the garage into the daylight.


When you want to feel free you visit the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.



The man is touring Independence Hall and sees the Liberty Bell across the street.



When you visit the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, you also want to visit the Liberty Bell.




The man walks around the Liberty Bell, admiring it.



When you visit the Liberty Bell, you want to touch the Liberty Bell.


The man touches the Liberty Bell and security guards chase him.



When you touch the Liberty Bell you run away to avoid arrest.




At an office that looks like the DMV the man, disguised in a hat and sunglasses, is handed a new ID by the employee behind the desk.



When you avoid arrest you change your name to Cliff Stevenson.




A group of dangerous looking men walk around the city with a picture of the man. They are trying to find him.



When you change your name to Cliff Stevenson, you make Cliff Stevenson’s enemies.




The man runs into an alley, followed by the group of dangerous looking



When you make Cliff Stevenson’s enemies, they find you and punch your face.

The camera does a close up of the man lying against the alley wall with a bruised face.



Don’t let Cliff Stevenson’s enemies find you and punch you in the face.


This shows the lengths that people will sometimes go to become free from boredom. Sometimes, these lengths are extreme and lead to unwanted consequences.


The Phenomenon of Boredom

Marion Martin, Gaynor Sadlo, and Graham Stew conducted a qualitative study of boredom. They studied accounts of boredom in both the work and home environment. With these accounts, they constructed a chart describing the situation, what the participants felt, and how they chose to deal with their boredom (an important detail to understand about this phenomenon). This chart is found below.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 8.20.55 PM

I find it interesting that while the anecdote of the situation changed depending on the setting, the emotions that the participants experienced were the same. The study also shows that it is possible escape states of disinterest by doing other things. I will look more closely at the two described experiences of feeling trapped and feeling guilty about wasting time, and how the participants attempted to alleviate their boredom.


The participants who described their boredom as being trapped also reported frustration, and in some cases, depression. One participant described his experience at home as being a caged animal that is stressed and wants to escape. Those who were bored at work most often felt frustration and found it hard to concentrate. These participants felt that they lost their freedom and wanted it back.


Feelings of guilt developed in some people who couldn’t manage their time and as a result fell into a cycle of repetition. These participants understood that they should do something productive, however, they couldn’t find something that they believed was worthwhile and productive. This led to feelings of dissonance and guilt.


There were two participants in the study who didn’t experience any boredom. One participant learned to meditate at a young age and swore off drugs and alcohol. The other participant found pleasure in simple things and was therefore always entertained. These are rare occurrences but they offer insight into boredom. These cases suggest that internal discipline is an important attribute to have when dealing with boredom. Further, internal discipline can be learned, and therefore one can learn not to be bored. This points to a possible method in which boredom can be treated.


Martin, Sadlo, and Stew also determined the main strategy that people used to counter apathy. They found that the most common method during unstructured time at home was to find something else to do. However, this lead to feelings of guilt because they were wasting time by doing random things around the house such as making a snack. It is interesting to note that that doing physical exercise decreased boredom and produced less guilt than other activities because the person was doing something they perceived to be meaningful and healthy. In other settings and situations, they discovered that the diversion tactics that participants used depend on individual preference. One person may find doodling to be liberating, while another might find conversing with a co-worker to be relaxing.

Putting It All Together

The root causes of the feelings associated with boredom stem from cognitive dissonance and reactance. People feel cognitive dissonance when they are in a state of mental idleness because they want to be doing something that isn’t boring, but they can’t find anything better to do. This leads to feelings associated with boredom, such as anxiety, helplessness, irritation, and apathy. Reactance occurs when a person feels restricted by their monotony because they can’t escape it. The person feels helpless and can become irritated. On occasion, people will act out in ways that may be destructive.

There are several ways that one can go about breaking out of boredom. Some methods, such as physical exercise, are more efficient than others, such as switching to another task. Inefficient ways of coping with this affliction may cause feelings of guilt because a person mismanages his or her time. This increases dissonance and leads to more disinterest. In rare cases, it is possible to become immune to boredom by disciplining oneself. It takes practice to get to this point, and few people are able to reach it.

Boredom is a common problem that at this time has no permanent solution and many temporary solutions. Many people study and theorize boredom, but it still persists. The more we know about this unpleasant feeling, the better we can confront and cope with it.


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