Boredom as an Adaptation
Boredom is an affective state, typically unpleasant and characterized by scarce stimulation and concentration in the current situation or activity that may have evolved to motivate bored individuals to pursue more desirable states of being.
Boredom is an affective state that involves low arousal, disinterest in the present setting, and feelings of dissatisfaction. Bored individuals may also feel that time passes more slowly (Fisher 1993). Physical signs of boredom in an individual typically include leaning the head back, yawning, and decreased motor activity (Park et al. in press). Most people typically perceive the experience of boredom as displeasurable and would prefer to avoid it if possible. For instance, Wilson et al. (2014) found through 11 studies that many people preferred receiving electric shocks rather than being left alone with nothing to do. Yet, the ubiquity of boredom in the human experience suggests that boredom may be a well-designed psychological mechanism that conferred an evolutionary advantage in host organisms – that is, our evolutionary ancestors who were prone to boredom were better off than those who were not. An evolutionary approach to boredom suggests that more attention should be paid toward understanding the role of this important emotional state in the lives of human beings.
Reasons for Boredom
Research has identified several causes of boredom. From an individual difference perspective, some people may be more prone to boredom than others. For example, individuals who score high on extraversion require more stimulation to remain aroused and engaged in tasks and are more likely than introverts to be bored when presented with monotonous tasks (Fisher 1993). Researchers have also sought to establish boredom proneness as a stable trait using assessments such as the Boredom Proneness Scale or the Boredom Susceptibility Subscale (Vodanovich 2003).
Boredom may also be caused by situational factors, such as when one has nothing to do and is inadequately stimulated (Fisher 1993). Importantly, the opposite of boredom is not necessarily a state of busyness. The perception of surfeit, which arises when an activity is deemed to be in excess to the point that it is no longer desirable, can also prompt feelings of boredom, especially when combined with task monotony, predictability, and feelings of confinement (Toohey 2011). In such cases, boredom can be triggered when the task environment lacks novelty and variety in stimulation. Similarly, the availability and quality of social interaction in the task environment may also contribute to feelings of boredom. For example, a social environment comprising slow or unemotional exchanges between coworkers may prompt the onset of boredom (Fisher 1993).
Behavioral constraints in the task context may also produce boredom (Fisher 1993). Rules and task regimentation limit the variety of stimulation available in the work environment and also infringe on people’s need for autonomy by restricting their choices in work activities and behaviors. Such restrictions inadvertently induce some level of psychological reactance, which may manifest as a need to reassert control over choice freedom and a greater liking for prohibited activities simply because they are forbidden (Fisher 1993). In this manner, present activities decline in attractiveness and become boring by comparison.
Boredom as an Evolutionary Adaptation
While the experience of boredom is usually accompanied by a lack of motivation and resentment in the present activity setting, it might also adaptively predispose a person to pursue future, more viable alternative activities and goals. Bored individuals often report restlessness and a desire to be engaged in something else instead (Bench and Lench 2013). The drive induced by boredom, which motivates individuals to seek alternative activities and more desirable circumstances, might have been adaptive for early humans adjusting and living in ancient environments. In particular, the capacity to feel bored and to respond in ways aimed at reducing boredom may have helped ancestral humans avoid stagnation, learn new skills, and devise creative solutions to overcome survival and reproductive challenges in ancient environments. The proclivity to feel dissatisfied with the current situation and improve upon it through innovation, such as the development of new technology or new ways to exploit the environment, may have also given ancestral humans an edge over conspecific rivals in competition for scarce resources. Consistent with this view, researchers have found that boredom triggers thought processes and behaviors that are conducive to creativity, in particular by motivating individuals to engage in divergent thinking and exploratory behaviors (Park et al. in press).
Boredom may also play a signaling role in the regulation of mastery and play, thus keeping individuals engaged so long as learning and play activities return stimulating, interesting, or rewarding outcomes. The boredom experienced by an individual during an activity may reflect the activity’s diminishing utility and, hence, declining satisfaction for the individual (Eastwood et al. 2012). As such, boredom can be adaptive for learning because it reduces interest in the current, unsatisfying activity and motivates the search for new activities or surroundings that promise greater stimulation (Bench and Lench 2013). Hence, boredom facilitates a reduction in effort investment in unstimulating activities and drives the pursuit of alternative goals, thereby enabling humans to engage in social, cognitive, and emotional experiences that would have otherwise been missed (Bench and Lench 2013).
The experience of boredom may also be adaptive in mating contexts. Some preliminary evidence supporting this idea comes from studies that have examined sex differences in susceptibility to boredom and found that males are more prone to boredom than females (Sundberg et al. 1991). In mating situations where males are required to invest significant effort in self-presentation and intrasexual competition for the attention of and access to potential mates, the experience of boredom may help curb over-expenditure of mating effort, especially when sexual attention is either unreciprocated or already acquired. Thus, boredom may help males optimize their investments in mating effort and prompt them to move on to the next candidate when it is more reproductively viable to do so. In so doing, males can avoid fixation on mates who are either unresponsive or who have already been potentially fertilized and continue to attract as many mates as possible.
Evolutionary Mismatch Between Modern Environments and Innate Capacities for Boredom
A state of boredom readies the individual for the pursuit of alternative experiences that could be beneficial to learning and development (Bench and Lench 2013). However, modern technologies, in particular handheld mobile devices, afford people a quick and addictive solution to deal with “dead time,” or small pockets of time where people are unfocused on any specific activity (Røpke and Christensen 2012), by providing near-reflexive levels of access to social media as well as stimulation via mobile gaming applications (Lord et al. 2015).
This scenario illustrates an evolutionary mismatch between humans’ innate capacity to experience boredom and features of the modern environment that are rife with stimulation designed to eliminate or dull the experience of boredom (Li et al. 2018). From a mismatch perspective, such novel forms of stimulation hijack our capacity for boredom, which should otherwise usefully impel humans to engage in creative thinking processes, seek new forms of stimulation, and change the status quo, thus causing people to miss out on the adaptive benefits of feeling bored. These periods of dead time, which are commonly experienced during daily commutes or service waiting times, are antecedents of boredom that may have functioned to motivate the drive for creativity and innovation. Thus, an evolutionary perspective suggests caution when choosing to occupy dead time with filler activities afforded by modern mobile technologies: while this might stave off the aversive feeling of boredom in the short run, it can also starve individuals of the impetus needed to become more creative and explore activities beneficial to survival and development.
Boredom might seem like an inconsequential or troublesome phenomenon at first glance. However, an evolutionary perspective suggests that boredom may serve important adaptive functions, in particular the search for more desirable or rewarding activities and circumstances (Bench and Lench 2013; Fisher 1993). Thus, the antecedents and consequences of boredom as well as how boredom unfolds over time deserve further research attention. If the mechanisms underlying boredom are better understood, individuals and organizations can go beyond seeking how to eliminate boredom and instead design activities and environments that can harness the benefits of boredom and optimize human functioning.
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- Park, G., Lim, B.-C., & Oh, H. S. (in press). Why boredom might not be a bad thing after all. Academy of Management Discoveries.Google Scholar
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