A study used three ways to test people's level of boredom and their politics
Situational boredom, people who felt bored easily and people who wanted more meaning in life tended to have extreme political views
Donald Trump, a reality show billionaire, will be the Republican candidate for president. Bernie Sanders, a little known socialist Senator, nearly toppled an American political dynasty.
Both expressed views that some have found extreme. Sanders’ desire to break up the banks, or Trump’s suggestion to ban Muslim immigration, for instance.
The European Journal of Social Psychology has offered a new intriguing idea that may explain some of the allure of extreme political thinking.
Boredom may sound like a pejorative term, but in social psychology it’s an actual phenomenon that should be taken seriously. It can be debilitating and has been linked to serious problems such as depression, aggression, anxiety, loneliness and hostility, research shows. It also can also motivate people to change their circumstances and end their ennui.
The recent study suggests people vote for extreme candidates or take extreme political positions, because they are totally bored.
High boredom, polarizing politics
The authors figured this out using three different experiments.
The first study took 97 students who were asked their political orientation and given a boring task of transcribing sentences about concrete.
The first “high boredom” group transcribed 10 references. The second “low boredom” group copied two. The students were then asked to rate their level of boredom. They were also asked to rate their political orientation (left-winged, right-winged etc.). People who had the “high boredom” task expressed stronger, polarized political orientations – particularly those students who leaned left – after the task, as compared to those doing the “low boredom” work. Conservatives did not show a significant difference in opinion pre- or post-test, but the authors suggest that may be because their sample of right-wing students was too small.
The authors argue that results demonstrated that experimentally induced boredom may trigger people to gravitate toward more extreme political beliefs.
The second study involved 859 people who lived in Ireland. Researchers sent them questionnaires that tested them on a boredom-proneness scale. It asked them to rate on a scale how bored they’d be looking at someone’s home movies, for instance. It also tested if they were bored, because they were unable to come up with something interesting to do. They also asked questions about the person’s political orientation.
The results showed that people who are easily bored tended to be on the more extreme end of the political spectrum, for both people on the right and the left, compared to those who are more content and entertained by the world around them.
The final study tested 300 people in Ireland who also completed a boredom proneness scale and a questionnaire about how much meaning they found in life. They also assessed the person’s political orientation.
Results showed that people who held extreme political views were bored and seeking more meaning from life.
The function of boredom
Over the years the psychological research on boredom has been limited. Boredom was typically studied by philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard who describes boredom as a negative experience and evidence that life has no real meaning.
“Boredom is unpleasant, there is no denying it,” said Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a lecturer at King’s College London and one of the study’s authors. “But it can also be functional, like anger can be helpful or fear which can motivate people to change their circumstances. It can be good and bad. We wanted to better understand what function does boredom serve in this circumstance.”
This latest research builds on earlier studies (PDF) that show people who feel threatened by their environment also tend to turn to more extreme ideologies. The ideologies give them more of a sense of control and it masks their vulnerabilities. Other studies have shown (PDF) that conservatives and liberals rigidly adhere to extreme ideologies when they want meaning in life. Being bored may be that big of a threat to one’s own sense of relevancy.
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Ian McGregor, a professor at the University of Waterloo whose research is referenced in the latest study, found the research intriguing.
“It fits with the big web of research out there now on how various threats make people more extreme,” McGregor said. “Boredom may not sound like a threat, but if you unpack it, it has a lot of the same features as other threats.”
Boredom, McGregor said, works on the same part of the brain that relates to anxiety. Not the anxiety that causes people to “bite their nails and wring their hands,” he said, but the kind of anxiety that someone feels when they are vaguely aware that something bad might happen.
“With your anxiety system, it will make you look around vigilantly to find something that will mute that feeling,” McGregor said. “Boredom can be a deeply profound motivational crisis in a person.”
Gravitating toward an extreme philosophy or person can “mute that anxiety” and help that person feel “that then there is no conflict here.”
Does that mean we have boredom to blame for our polarized politics? Author van Tilburg said he cannot go there.
“These cases are so complex and there is so much more involved when one supports a particular candidate or cause,” van Tilburg said. It’s unclear from the tests how big or how small a role boredom plays in political decisions. “We are by no means wanting to suggest that boredom is the main cause for the rise of a particular candidate or cause, but we do show that it can be an influence.”
So, it might be worth asking for opinions on the study’s conclusions over drinks with that Bernie bro, Trump or Brexit supporter. You can bet that conversation won’t be boring.