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The Link Between Bernie, Brexit, and Boredom

Researchers report feelings of ennui can inspire extremism.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Jean Olahus/Flickr)

Many reasons have been offered for our political polarization, from gerrymandered electoral districts to partisan news channels. But newresearch suggests a simpler factor that may help explain why the middle of the ideological spectrum has largely lost its appeal: Maybe we’re just bored.

“Boredom is associated with, and leads to, the endorsement of extreme political orientations,” Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg of King’s College-London and the University of Limerick’s Eric Igou argue in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Bored people, they write, are in search of meaning, and an extreme political ideology offers just that: a cause you can commit to.

The researchers describe three studies, the first of which featured 97 people recruited on a university campus in Ireland. They were randomly assigned to copy one, two, or 10 passages from the scintillating book Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures.

Not surprisingly, those who had the more tedious task reported higher levels of boredom. Afterwards, they described where they stand on the political spectrum, positioning themselves on seven-point left-to-right scales.

The researchers found “liberals in the low-boredom condition were less extreme in their beliefs” than those who had just delved deeply into the fascinating world of concrete. (This effect was not found for conservatives, but they were few in number among this university sample.)

“Boredom puts people on edge.”

The second study featured 859 people living in Ireland who answered questions designed to determine how easily and how frequently they get bored. The researchers found “people who are highly vulnerable to situational boredom” — that is, they can barely stand it when they’re forced to watch a friend’s vacation photographs — also expressed more extreme political positions.

In the final study, 300 people living in Ireland filled out a series of questionnaires, including the “boredom proneness scale” (in which they expressed their level of agreement with statements such as “Time always seems to be passing slowly”), and a “meaning of life questionnaire.” In the latter, they read such statements as “My life has a clear sense of purpose,” and “I am searching for meaning,” and noted their level of agreement with each.

The researchers found “situational boredom positively predicted search for meaning, which subsequently predicted higher levels of political extremity.”

“Boredom puts people on edge,” the researchers conclude. “It makes them seek engagements that are challenging, exciting, and that offer a sense of purpose.”

Their results suggest political affiliations can fill that need. Furthermore, ideologies that purport to provide definitive answers do so more effectively than those in the mushy, the-other-side-has-a-point middle.

Perhaps the ancient aphorism needs an update: Idle hands are the polarized political party’s playthings.