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November 2020   |   Volume 22 No. 1

Feeling Bored? Pay Attention to This

Boredom tends to arise when we stop paying attention to the task at hand, say HKU psychology researchers. The easy distraction of the smartphone is not helping.

Dr Christian Chan’s least favourite emotion is boredom. To keep boredom at bay, he has kept his research pursuits varied and wide-ranging, from sleep and mentoring to the impact of natural disasters on mental health. And like many people, he has also turned to his smartphone to occupy his time. But these experiences have left him wondering, what happens when we are no longer bored? 

That question has inspired a new line of research that Dr Chan is overseeing with his PhD student, Ms Katy Tam Yuen-yan. They have published several studies, with more in the pipeline, that seek to understand the nature of boredom. 

One clear result is that boredom arises when we stop paying attention to the task at hand, as many people with solitaire or other games on their work computer might recognise.

“Theoretically, if you are fully engaged in a task, you can’t feel bored,” he said. “The opposite of boredom is full attention engagement – some researchers liken it to psychological flow, when you stop noticing the passage of time.” 

A shift in attention does not necessarily result in boredom because attention can shift back to the task. But if the task is not meaningful or rewarding, there is a good chance boredom will arise. 

Dr Chan and Ms Tam provide evidence for this in a study that sampled participants’ mood and experience five times a day, at random times, over seven days. Each time they were asked to indicate what they were doing, how they were feeling and whether they were with other people. Sadness and personality traits were controlled for. As expected, those engaged in less meaningful tasks tended to feel more bored.

Bored in a crowd 

“What we found was not rocket science: if you perceive that what you are doing is not meaningful, then you are more likely to feel bored. But interestingly, if you are doing that not-meaningful activity with other people, the likelihood of your feeling bored is even higher,” he said. 

“Our explanation for this is that when other people are with you, you have the expectation that you shouldn’t feel bored. So when you do feel bored, it’s worse.” 

They also looked at boredom in schools, using a similar design to question students and teachers in the moment. Oddly enough, students who perceived their teachers to be bored were more likely to feel bored themselves, even if the teachers had said they did not feel bored. “We can’t say whether students were projecting, but in any case, there is this disconnect between how teachers felt and how students rated teachers’ feelings,” he said.

Other studies are underway to look at the theoretical underpinnings of boredom in terms of what sets it off, how it evolves and the consequences, and the link of boredom to smartphone use. 

“Boredom has a function because if we don’t feel bored, then we might do the same thing repeatedly, even if it is not rewarding. Or we might not be able to shift our attention to more meaningful tasks,” Dr Chan said. 

“But if we are avoiding boredom at all costs, that might create a habit of not sustaining attention, or not being able to delay gratification, or not exerting the time and energy required to excel.”

Bored in a crowd

According to Dr Chan’s study, the feeling of boredom is more likely if one perceives that what one is doing is not meaningful, and if that not-meaningful activity is done with other people, the likelihood of feeling bored is even higher.

Phones keep you hooked 

This is where smartphone use becomes a worry. Smartphones and apps are designed to hold people’s attention and keep them stimulated. 

“If you start to feel bored with the task at hand and you are used to shifting it to your phone, which helps you get rid of the unpleasant feeling of boredom, then you are negatively reinforcing the self-distraction. This is simple behavioural theory. I suspect that over time, this may get generalised to pulling out your phone when attention shifts, even before the feeling of boredom arises,” he said. He and Ms Tam are now doing experiments to monitor people’s smartphone use when they are placed in boring situations. 

They are also trying to address the idea of chronic boredom, which leaves people feeling bored over long periods of time – something they think may be due to the expectation that life should be stimulating and meaningful. Mobile devices may also have a role here. 

“It’s a vicious cycle. Our brains like novelty, especially visual novelty, and here you have a screen stimulating you visually and demanding your attention. It’s training you to crave quick, rapid changes. Real life, in contrast, gets less interesting. 

“The smartphone is so heavily engineered to make sure you keep using it that you can’t use your willpower to fight it. It’s become the default strategy for how people deal with boredom as a feeling. But theorists are now suggesting that we shouldn’t always try to get rid of boredom so reactionarily,” said Dr Chan.

If we are avoiding boredom at all costs, that might create a habit of not sustaining attention, or not being able to delay gratification, or not exerting the time and energy required to excel.