Being Bored Just Got A Little More Interesting

By Alan McStravick

November 19, 2013

We’ve all been there. A long car ride through the corn fields of Nebraska. A work party where you search for conversation that doesn’t center around the single mundane task you share for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. A two-hour zig-zagging line to board a 4-minute roller coaster ride. Boredom, we learned in 2006, comes in many nuanced forms, the style of one distinctly different from another. Now, thanks to a collaborative study, we have one more type of boredom we can add to the list.

Published this week in the Springer journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers from the University of Munich, the University of Ulm, McGill University and the City University of New York and led by Dr. Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz and the Thurgau University of Teacher Education have detailed a fifth type of boredom and developed a description for this emotion.

This study is among the first to quantifiably investigate different types of boredom. The initial research differentiated four types of boredom, delineating them based on particular levels of arousal, ranging from calm to fidgety. That 2006 work also described how both positive and negative boredom is experienced by the individual. This experience is referred to as valence.

The valences were separated into four groups: indifferent boredom, calibrating boredom, searching boredom and reactant boredom. In indifferent boredom, the individual is relaxed and withdrawn. An example might be the car ride scenario above. Calibrating boredom finds the individual experiencing uncertainty and open to or actively seeking a change in the situation. An individual experiencing searching boredom is decidedly restless and is open to whichever suitable alternative presents itself. Reactant boredom is typified by a high level of motivation to extricate one’s self from the boring situation in search of a specific alternative.

With this latest study, the original four valences now have a new cousin: apathetic boredom. This valence, say the researchers, is “an especially unpleasant form that resembles learned helplessness or depression.” Those experiencing apathetic boredom present both low arousal levels and high levels of aversion.

To arrive at their determination, Goetz, Frenzel and colleagues conducted real-time experience studies over a period of two weeks. Their study cohort consisted of 63 German university students and 80 German high school students. Each subject participant completed a digital questionnaire several times a day on a study-provided PDA device.

The questionnaire focused on their activities and experiences throughout their day.

The research team, operating under the assumption there is a direct link between boredom and depression, were alarmed when their study results showed the new valance of apathetic boredom was reported with unusual frequency by a full 36 percent of the high school student subjects.

Perhaps the most interesting take away from this study is that the five individual and unique boredom types are not solely reliant on the intensity of the boredom being felt. In fact, the real-life situation in which it is experienced is a significant factor. The team also pointed out that individuals do not randomly experience boredom types from across the spectrum of valences. Most individuals are consigned to experience one type of boredom only.

Goetz, offering his insight on this last point said, “We therefore speculate that experiencing specific boredom types might, to some degree, be due to personality-specific dispositions.” Taking this knowledge in hand, the results of the study could eventually lead to discussion about whether boredom has a positive or negative effect on both learning and achievement.

“This question can only be adequately answered if we know what type of boredom a student experiences,” Goetz concluded.

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