Why do we get bored? Photo: Flickr/CollegeDegrees360
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Familiarity breeds contempt: why do we get bored, and what is the point of boredom?

The science of being sick and tired.

A couple of years ago, I went to see Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) at the St James Theatre in London. Like the TV series of the same name, the play was centred on the crumbling of a once happy marriage.

The production, though wondrously engaging and well-acted, really unsettled me. The couple were once very much in love with one another. Why did being with the same stimuli (each other) for a respectable amount of time (20 years) cause their psychology’s interest for one another to fade?

Did they just become bored of each other? Surely not – it seems too facile to blame it on boredom. Or perhaps I’m not giving the word "boredom" enough credit? 

Boredom manifests itself throughout our lives, right from infancy.

For example, collect all your hard-earned pennies to buy a baby a toy. Give the baby the toy. The baby, with the attention span of a squirrel, will be intrigued by the toy for five seconds. The baby will probably drop the toy and move on to the next intriguing item (most likely something hazardous). Give the baby the toy again and they’ll look at it for 1.5 seconds and drop it again. Give the baby the toy again and they’ll probably get pissed off and start to cry.

More examples: when your room, which your eyes have become accustomed to, looks dull and homogenous until something new is introduced, or when your wardrobe feels bland and you’re compelled to buy new clothes, or when you protect your new iPhone like a newborn baby until it starts to age, etc.

All of this is because of boredom, and it’s quite compelling.

“Boredom is extremely common,” Bill Griesar tells me, a behavioural neuroscientist of Washington State University Vancouver. “And it's found across cultures, so the pervasive nature of this experience suggests that it serves some critical role in behaviour.”

So, what is exactly is boredom? The Oxford dictionary describes it as: “Feeling weary and impatient because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one’s current activity”.

For a feeling so common, it's surprising that the word first appeared written down in 1852, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. In it, Lady Dedlock says she is “bored to death” with her marriage.

The late Robert Plutchik, a Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a “Wheel of Emotions” (extended in order of intensity) in 1980, and placed boredom after disgust, as a milder form of disgust:

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions. Image: Robert Plutchik

Although boredom is essential for human development it’s been given a bad rap. “Boredom has traditionally been associated with a range of negative outcomes, both within the workplace and outside it,” Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire write in their 2014 paper. Mann and Cadman examined the relationship between boredom and creative potential on a range of tasks in two studies.

In the first study, 80 eager volunteers visited their lab only to be given the dull, monotonous chore of copying out lengthy lists of telephone numbers, or to be excluded from it (this was the control group), followed by the creative task of thinking of as many possible uses for a pair of plastic cups.

In the second study, a further 90 volunteers were split into three groups, each group being assigned to various types of boring activities (copying numbers, reading the numbers, or being excused from the whole thing  again, a control), followed by a creative task.

“Results suggested that boring activities resulted in increased creativity and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances,” the authors write. 

Mann dubbed boredom as “the Cinderella of psychology”: “Boredom is neglected in psychology! Stress, etc, gets to go to the ball, but never boredom!” she tells me.

In a similar another study, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood of Pennsylvania State University found participants who were bored outperformed those who were relaxed, elated or distressed on creative tasks.

Griesar tells me that, as a graduate student, he was struck by how nicotine reduced subjective reports of boredom in non-smoking subjects, who had to complete a deadly dull computer-based task. These subjects reported much less boredom when on nicotine, a stimulant drug, delivered by patch (without knowing they were on the drug), while their physiological state of attentiveness (as measured by a electroencephalogram, or EEG, a test used to record brain activity), and their performance on the boring task, both improved. Most subjects even claimed to enjoy the computer task while on the drug.

In newer research on this topic, Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert of the University of Waterloo found boredom was linked to a faster heart rate and increased release of the stress hormone, cortisol, but lower skin conductance response to stimuli. In short: when you’re bored, you’re more stressed and alert – unmotivated by your surroundings, and perhaps less able to sustain attention on what’s at hand.

So, what is boredom for, exactly? Well, a recent paper examined that question in some detail.

Heather Lench of Texas A&M University and Shane Bench of Washington State University suggest that boredom motivates you to seek something new – some new goals or situations or stimuli that offer you a better chance for motivated engagement. From the paper, "By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”

So, is our level of boredom relative, depending on the country we’re in?

“So I've lived in the UK and Japan, and have definitely experienced culture shock in both places, which involves periods of boredom," Griesar tells me. "Perhaps all the new stimuli, including confusing and even occasionally upsetting social experiences, are novel and alerting  so you get a faster heart rate, and more stress. But effective, adaptive social responses aren’t yet so clear…  As new social skills are built, through direct social engagement), there are more opportunities to get productively involved in interesting, and less boring situations."

What’s the neuroscience behind boredom? Our brain’s motivational networks involve the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is reliably released in response to novel, unexpected, rewarding stimuli – and to stimuli that predict, based on past experience, the delivery of some reward.

“That new iPhone, toy, pair of shoes, etc, are both novel  they always offer exciting new features  and predict rewards, like a positive or envious social response from others, or perhaps a longer battery life, bigger screen, that you anticipate will make your life better or easier,” Griesar tells me. “But once you’ve got the shiny, new thing, your brain is on the lookout for additional opportunities. Dopamine release is linked to anticipation, and helps promote movement/behaviour towards obtaining that reward. And of course, the anticipation is often much better than that actual reward itself,” he adds.  

One of my favourites YouTubers, Michael Stevens, aka Vsauce, gives his own awesome take on boredom:

He concludes:

Boredom protects us. Monotonous speakers, mind-numbing tasks, and an overload of sameness – those things aren’t dirty or poisonous [like disgust, an emotion more intense than boredom], they’re just not stimulating enough. [Like the studies shown above] Boredom compels us to new [creative] things – fresh stimulation  and when it can be overcome, a propensity to boredom is a sign of a healthy mind […] So the next time you’re a little bored, be proud. Thank your ancestors – you are participating in a life-improving drive, like hunger or thirst that pushes us towards new and better things".

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Now listen to Tosin discussing the science behind boredom on the NS podcast:

 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Photo: Getty
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We're asking the wrong questions about the Google “anti-diversity memo”

Which sex is better at what skills is less important than which skills we value in the first place. 

Yes, I feel sorry for the Google employee who has been fired for writing an "anti diversity manifesto" and circulating it within the company. (Guess what? It leaked.) Losing your job is painful, and doing it in public is even more so. But the conversation around this is heading in such an unproductive direction (do women suck at maths?) that I can't resist wading in.

I agree with the writer that these issues are hard to talk about, but that pushback comes from both directions. Look at the crap Mary Beard is wading through for trying to inject some facts into a discussion about the racial composition of Roman Britain. Nicholas Nassim Taleb keeps honking about "diversity genes" and refusing to listen to evidence that contradicts him. But in his mind, he's Mr Science - sorry, Professor Science - and she's Madam Arts-Subject.

This matters, because when it comes to diversity, there are fact-based positions on both sides. Yet there is a certain strand of Rational Internet Thinker (let's be honest, mostly men) who solemnly tells everyone that we Must Stick To The Facts while advancing deeply ideological stances, which only happen to look "natural" because they are so embedded in our culture. 

But back to the subject at hand. Here's the recap: the memo was headlined  "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" and its writer's firing will be taken as confirmation that his thesis was true. Ironically, this will be done by the same section of the right which usually has no problem with firing at will and normally thinks that HR should be a brutally Darwinian process. (Looked at from that perspective, of course Google would fire someone who brought such criticism on the company.) But now there are Principles involved. Probably Free Speech is under attack. Political Correctness may even have Gone Mad. Social Justice Warriors are on the march. Before it's all placards as far as the eye can see, instead I would like to look at what was actually said, and whether it's an argument with any merit. 

In essence, the memo argued that the gender imbalance of staff in tech companies like Google is primarily the result of biological, not cultural differences. ("They’re universal across human cultures," it argued. "They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone".) There are differences in ability between the sexes, the writer said, and that's why most top programmers are men. Men like numbers, and the numbers like them right back.

The memo added:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The section about typically female traits is also interesting, because of a couple of points the writer picks out.

"Women, on average, have more...

- Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

- These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

- Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

- Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.  

Well, SOMEONE has been reading their Simon Baron Cohen. The first point is a distillation of Baron Cohen's argument about "male brains" being better at understanding systems, and "female brains" being better at feelings - which he extends to say that autistic traits might be an "extreme male brain". Unsurprisingly, there are other scientists in the field, such as Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young, who find a lot of the neuroscience of sex difference quite flaky.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but from a lay perspective, my take is that yes, there are some biological differences between the average male and female brain, but that these pale beside a) the way our brain architecture is shaped by stimuli (like years of being told you're rubbish at maths) and b) the overall effect of culture (eg companies which value presenteeism, or make it hard for women to return after having children, or cover up for senior men who are repeated sexual harassers etc etc). 

The "higher agreeableness" point was dealt with by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Women aren't stupidly not asking for raises or being assertive in the office because they are delicate little flowers. One of the reasons they are more agreeable at work is because they face heavier penalties if they are not. As Sandberg formulates it: "Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Women are nicer because there are more negative consequences for them if they are not nice.

The last point about neuroticism is bleakly funny, because while women might report more anxiety, men commit suicide in far greater numbers. Which gender is really more susceptible to stress and anxiety? Women talking more about their mental health on "Googlegeist" is being held against them here, when possibly one of the reasons that more men kill themselves is because of the stigma of talking about their feelings.

Overall, the memo makes some compelling points, but it also chucks in a lot of stuff that "everyone knows" about sex differences, which isn't scientifically supported, and also some evolutionary psychology about "protecting females" which strays into the kind of rhetoric found on MRA sites. Its understanding of male and female work patterns can also be naive, for example:

"Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power."  

I mean, doesn't this just raise a huge number of questions?

How often do men and women do the same work, and for what reasons might they not? (Clue: women do far more unpaid care work and housework.) Are women spending that money on themselves, or are they running household budgets, which is an unpaid project-management task they are doing alongside any paid work? What an individual finds stressful is also entirely subjective.

The author chucks in a reference to "Marxist intellectuals" but doesn't seem to have read any of the vast and fascinating literature on unpaid care and its interaction with paid work. I'd recommend starting with The Second Shift or Wife Work. Angela Saini's Inferior is a good recent choice, too, on women's overlooked contributions to science.

When I talk about feminism with self-styled rationalist men, this dynamic comes up again and again. They will present my arguments as mere anecdote and emotion, which - sad shake of the head - is contradicted by the available evidence. When you point to peer-reviewed studies, or great ethnographies, supporting your point, which they haven't bothered to read, they steam on regardless. It makes the contest deeply unequal. Internet skeptic types talk about the need to engage with writers they don't agree with, and the importance of free and open debate, but often actually don't want to read the contrary view. 

 

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If you want to read more about the discussion of the science of sex differences which has arisen as a result of this memo, then this piece by Slate Star Codex is interesting - it argues that interest in STEM subjects, not ability, might be the key difference between the sexes. It also completely misses the point. 

Here's a thought experiment. Say you were recruiting for a spoon-juggler. Your advert would probably mention "needs to juggle spoons". But, almost certainly, there would be other skills involved. Turning up to performances on time. Keeping your spoon inventory in check. Not turning up drunk. Not stealing forks from the fork-juggler. 

This is what the argument that women can't succeed in tech because they are innately bad at the skills needed to succeed in tech sounds like to me. We know that many of the early programmers were women, back when the job was considered to be largely secretarial. (Go watch Hidden Figures for more on this, and also because it's just a lovely film and I am so happy for Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson.) We know that the fastest way to depress wages in a job is to feminise its workforce. It's not unreasonable to wonder if we've constructed the whole idea of "success in tech" in such a way that it makes men's success look natural and pre-ordained. Yes, you need to be able to code to be a coder. But there are other skills you need too. 

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google, makes this argument better than I could. And he seems to own a pair of testicles, so you know he's more rational and objective than me:

"Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialised to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones."

As I said on Twitter, this is a pattern we see again and again - a high status job is coded as "male", requiring "male" traits, to justify men's dominance of it. The same thing happens in politics: we are assured that politicians need to be "strong" and "decisive", when many of the most successful male politicians today have incredible people skills. Jeremy Corbyn makes time for everyone he meets, hugging them and posing for endless selfies. Sadiq Khan has that Queen Mum ability to remember your name and a key fact about you. What's the real difference between the Clintons? Bill demonstrated huge empathy and made people he was talking to feel special; Hillary didn't. But still, maybe men dominate politics because they are just more aggressive and ambitious. Yeah, OK. 

Tech suffers from a similar silent rewriting of core competencies to flatter its mostly male leaders.

We have all these conversations about how hard it is for Mark Zuckerberg to make the leap to being a frontman CEO because he's a maths guy, not a people guy. We treat this like he's doing an amazing project of personal growth. We don't go, "wow, they really lowered the bar for CEOs to let someone without some of the key skills have a go at it". Or, "his poor colleagues, having to make up for the stuff he's not naturally gifted at". 

There was a similar reaction when Sergey Brin and Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt when it was time for Google to "grow up". We didn't say, "How embarrassing, they have to find someone to counteract their deficiencies." We said: "Smart move. Not every human can possess all skills, it's wise to have a range of experience and aptitudes at the top of your company."

So this, for me, is the most interesting takeaway from the Google memo. "Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.