It’s all too easy to divide the world into people like us and outsiders. Newly published research points to a surprising factor that exacerbates this unfortunate tendency: Boredom.
Writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, University of Limerick psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou report boredom increases the value we place on groups we feel a part of and decreases the value of those who feel alien to us. They describe five experiments that provide evidence backing up this idea.
Their basic thesis is that boredom is more than a simple lack of stimulation. Rather, they write, bored people experience their lives — or at least the situations they find themselves in at the moment — as fundamentally meaningless.
This uncomfortable feeling motivates people to search for a way to re-establish a sense of purpose — which can be a good thing. In a research released in May, van Tilburg and Igou found boredom can inspire people to engage in helpful behavior such as giving blood.
But while aiding others can provide a feeling of purpose, so can strengthening our identification with key belief systems or social groups. If your sense of meaning comes from being a Democrat, a vegetarian or a Yankees fan, you’ll likely hold onto those affiliations with greater intensity in times of threat — and be more critical of Republicans, meat-eaters or those who root for the Red Sox.
In their just-published paper, Van Tilburg and Igou argue boredom is a subtle form of threat capable of activating this "my group first" mindset.
“We first tested this hypothesis by having Irish participants indicate their preference for the Irish name Eoin over its international, more-common equivalent Owen,” they write. “Participants who had first engaged in the boring task of counting letters in sentences counted Eoin over Owen to a greater extent than Irish participants who did not engage in the boring task.”
In another experiment, 47 Irish students were assigned to complete a highly repetitive task on their computer screens. Half the participants had to perform this task for twice as long as the others, which — according to their self-reports — left them feeling bored and meaningless.
They then read a fictional scenario in which an Englishman beats up an Irishman and later admits he “was acting on anti-Irish motives.” They were asked to play the role of judge and sentence the man to jail time. The bored participants “allocated substantially more months of prison” than the others.
“These results are consistent with our hypothesis that bored people seek meaningfulness by negatively evaluating the actions of an out-group member that are targeted against an in-group member,” the researchers write.
In a related experiment, 90 residents of Ireland read either the aforementioned scenario or a revised version in which an Irishman beat up an Englishman. All were asked to sentence the offender; half took part in a highly boring task before doing so.
The bored participants “gave shorter jail sentences to Irish offenders compared to English offenders,” while the others gave out equal sentences to the two men. Boredom apparently stimulated a stronger identification for one’s own group (Irishmen, in this case), and a harsher punishment for someone who harms a member of that group.
Van Tilburg and Igou note that boredom can also trigger other responses, such as sensation-seeking. But their research suggests it can also fuel hostility, particularly “if bored people encounter settings in which intergroup tensions are salient.”
That’s worth remembering as we watch footage of unemployed young people violently clashing with perceived enemies, be they rival gangs or the authorities. Such uprisings undoubtedly have multiple causes, but perhaps we’re overlooking a surprisingly salient point: These kids are bored.