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Is Boredom One or Many? A functional solution to the problem of heterogeneity

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Abstract

Despite great progress in our theoretical and empirical investigations of boredom, a basic issue regarding boredom remains unresolved: it is still unclear whether the construct of boredom is a unitary one or not. By surveying the relevant literature on boredom and arousal, the paper makes a case for the unity of the construct of boredom. It argues, first, that extant empirical findings do not support the heterogeneity of boredom, and, second, that a theoretically motivated and empirically grounded model of boredom (the functional account) supports the view that the construct of boredom is a unitary one.
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Is Boredom One or Many?
A functional solution to the problem of heterogeneity
Andreas Elpidorou
Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville Louisville, KY, USA.
Correspondence
308 Humanities Building, Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292,
USA
Email: andreas.elpidorou@louisville.edu
Abstract Despite great progress in our theoretical and empirical investigations of boredom, a basic
issue regarding boredom remains unresolved: it is still unclear whether the construct of boredom is a
unitary one or not. By surveying the relevant literature on boredom and arousal, the paper makes a
case for the unity of the construct of boredom. It argues, first, that extant empirical findings do not
support the heterogeneity of boredom, and, second, that a theoretically motivated and empirically
grounded model of boredom (the functional account) supports the view that the construct of
boredom is a unitary one.
Keywords boredom, emotion, arousal, function, ANS
1. Introduction
Boredom is a ubiquitous aversive experience that affects humans frequently and in a wide
array of situations. As a transitory psychological state, boredom (“state boredom”) has non-
negligible effects on cognition and behavior. It changes our attitudes regarding our situation;
it can give rise to meaning-reestablishment strategies and to pro-social intentions; it can
affect our political orientations and alter our perception of the passage of time; it may lead to
mind-wandering; and, almost without fail, it disengages us from the task at hand (see
references in Eastwood et al., 2012; Elpidorou 2018b; Fahlman et al. 2013; Van Tilburg &
Igou 2012, 2017). Above all, boredom is a powerful drive. It motivates us to act in various
ways—moral or immoral, beneficial or harmful, subtle or extreme—all of which share a
common aim: to help us escape from what is making us bored (Elpidorou, in press). Perhaps
even more significant than the outcomes of state boredom are the correlates of the
propensity to experience boredom frequently (“boredom proneness”) (Farmer & Sundberg,
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1986). Such a propensity carries important physical, psychological, social, and even moral
risks. Depression, anger and aggression, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, lower life and job
satisfaction, poor interpersonal relations, risk-taking behavior, gambling, and drug and
alcohol abuse, just to list a few, have all been reported in the literature as correlates of
boredom proneness (for reviews, see Elpidorou, 2017; Vodanovich, 2003; Vodanovich &
Watt, 2015).
Three recent advances have acted as catalysts for progress in the scientific study of
boredom. First, researchers have developed and validated ways of operationalizing and
measuring the presence of boredom. Some of these assess boredom in specific contexts (e.g.,
Passik et al., 2003). Others are designed to assess one’s general tendency to experience
boredom in a wide range of situations (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). And others measure the
occurrence of the transitory experience of state boredom (Baratta & Spence, 2018; Fahlman
et al., 2013). All these measures offer researchers ways to determine and assess the presence
of boredom and to examine its concomitants, correlates, and effects.
Second, although initially ignored, the neurophysiological correlates of boredom are
now actively investigated. Oswald (1962) reported that alpha waves are present during
boredom and Tabatabaie et al. (2014) provided evidence that boredom might be correlated
with lower beta activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Such findings allow
investigators to test hypotheses regarding the relationship between attention, mental effort,
and boredom (see e.g., Eastwood et al., 2012; Kurzban et al., 2013). Other studies reported
activation of parts of the default mode network during boredom (Danckert & Merrifield,
2016; Ulrich et al., 2014), which could be interpreted as a sign that during a boring task one’s
attention is directed toward inner thoughts (Raffaelli, Mills, & Christoff, 2018).
Third, a number of researchers have articulated and defended a functional account of
boredom that maintains, first, that boredom plays an important function in our mental
economy and, second, that an explication of boredom’s function is necessary for a complete
understanding of its nature (Bench & Lench, 2013; Danckert et al., 2018b; Elpidorou 2014,
2018a, 2018b; Kurzban et al., 2013). Boredom, according to the functional account, is what
it is because of what it does. The functional account can be developed in various ways, but a
recent, theoretically developed, explication of it treats boredom as a regulatory state that
aims to promote the pursuit of satisfactory activities: i.e., ones that are perceived by the
agent as meaningful, interesting, or engaging (Danckert et al., 2018b; Elpidorou 2018a,
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2018b).
It is undeniable that in the last couple of decades the study of boredom has made
great advances. All the same, it would be a severe overstatement to claim that the nature of
boredom is, more or less, settled. Indeed, there appears to be no consensus when it comes to
perhaps one of the most basic issues regarding boredom, namely, whether boredom is a
unitary construct or not. If boredom is not one—that is, if there is not just one type of
boredom—then different researchers might be speaking of the same boredom only in name.
As a consequence, the results, claims, or theories of one study might not be pertinent to the
results, claims, or theories of another.
2. Clarifying the Question
Even a cursory look at the literature on boredom reveals that the issue of the unity or
disunity of boredom has been one of concern and speculation. For instance, Otto Fenichel
wrote that “it is probable that the conditions and forms of behavior called ‘boredom’ are
psychologically quite heterogeneous” (Fenichel, 1951, p. 349). Martin Doehlemann (1991)
proposed a taxonomy of boredom that distinguishes between four distinct types of
boredom. In his phenomenological investigation of boredom, Martin Heidegger (1983) drew
a distinction between three types of boredom. And Adams Phillips (1993) suggested that we
should not speak of boredom but of “boredoms.”
Is boredom a unitary construct or not? There are ways of reading this question
according to which the answer comes out to be clearly “no.” For one, if the question is read
as one concerning our linguistic practices, then it is clear that we can—and indeed do—
mean different things by “boredom:” acedia, tedium, ennui, existential malaise, lethargy,
monotony, and indifference have all been called “boredom.” In turn, we also know that
“boredom” is often used to refer both to the state of boredom (a transitory affective
experience) and to boredom proneness (a propensity to experience boredom often and in a
wide range of situations). What is at stake in the present investigation is neither an issue
about the use of the word “boredom” nor about the distinction between state boredom and
boredom proneness. The focus is on whether state boredom is essentially unified or not. Are
all instances of that emotion type similar in some important way? And are they amenable to
more or less the same kind of scientific and conceptual analyses? Or are they distinct kinds
of experiences, each of which ought to be addressed and studied separately?
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The present essay addresses such issues head-on and draws a three-fold conclusion.
First, the essay makes the case that extant findings on the character of boredom do not
support the view that the state of boredom is a heterogeneous construct. Second, it argues
against using physiological arousal as a determining characteristic of boredom and in support
of the claim that boredom does not necessarily require a specific kind of arousal. Third, it
shows how a functional account of boredom supports the view that the construct of
boredom is a unitary one. Ultimately, the essay aims to contribute to the rich and growing
literature on boredom by focusing on boredom’s relationship to physiological arousal and by
offering a theoretical account that can both accommodate and unify important findings
regarding the character and effects of boredom.
3. Heterogeneity in Boredom Proneness
Why would one think that boredom is not a unitary construct? There are at least two
potential sources of such a contention. The first, which will be considered in this section, has
to do with the purported multidimensionality of the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS)
(Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). BPS is a self-report measure that is meant both to
operationalize and to assess boredom proneness (commonly thought to be a personality
trait).
When devising BPS, Farmer and Sundberg (1986) conceived of it as a scale
measuring a unitary construct—specifically, the tendency of an individual to become bored.
However, the first factor analytic studies on BPS did not confirm their assumption. Both
Ahmed (1990) and Gana and Akremi (1991) provided evidence in support of the claim that
BPS consisted of two factors. Follow-up exploratory factor analyses complicated matters
further. Such analyses suggested the existence of anywhere between two to five factors. For
helpful reviews see Vodanovich (2003) and Melton and Schulenberg (2009). It is worth
noting that it is hard to draw any meaningful comparisons between different factor analytic
studies. That is because such studies differ in important respects: some used the original
true-false version of BPS, whereas others employed the revised (7-point Likert-type scale)
version; different studies employed different factor analytic rotations; and different studies
used different statistical criteria for item inclusions.
Despite these mixed results and lack of clarity as to the precise number of factors, a
consensus arose: BPS, it was argued, has at least two factorsan internal factor and an
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external factor (see Struk et al., 2017 for details). The presence of these two factors was
taken as support for the existence of two types of boredom. On the one hand, the internal
factor of BPS was thought to reflect one’s inability to self-generate interest and was taken to
be a measure of apathetic boredom. On the other hand, the external factor was thought to
reflect one’s inability to engage with the environment in an interesting or fulfilling manner
and was taken to be a measure of agitated boredom. Thus, through a study of the factors of
BPS one could—and in fact some did—claim that there are two types of boredom. This
result about the two types of boredom was further supported by a confirmatory factor
analysis on BPS conducted by Vodanovich, Wallace, & Kass (2005) that revealed again two
factors (“Internal Stimulation” and “External Stimulation”) with six items each. Vodanovich
and colleagues argued that the remaining items of the original 28-item BPS should be
excluded from the scale and thus offered a shortened version of BPS (BPS-SF).
This conclusion about the factor structure of BPS was proven, however, to be
premature. Subsequent factor analyses failed to find support for the purported
multidimensional nature of BPS. In fact, Melton and Schulenberg (2009) concluded that BPS
does not have a replicable factor structure. Additionally, by focusing on the short form of
BPS (BPS SF) developed by Vodanovich et al. (2005), Struk and colleagues (2017) argued
that the two-factor structure of the scale is an artifact of item wording. The internal factor
scale consists exclusively of reverse-worded items. When the wording was altered so that no
item required reverse scoring, they found that the scale behaved like a single factor—not
only did the two factors behave more like each other, but they also behaved like the total
BPS score. As further support for their conclusion, Struk and colleagues devised a new short
(8-item) version of BPS (SBPS). Analysis of this new scale showed good evidence in support
of its unidimensionality. Struk et al. (2017) concluded that “prior studies that considered BPS
to be a multifactorial measure, including our own studies, should be interpreted with care”
(p. 356).
But there is more. In a six-year study that included older participants (mean age >
70), Gana, Broc, & Bailly (2019) explored once again the factorial structure of measures of
boredom proneness and examined whether such measures capture trait boredom or whether
they are affected by the state of the participants in which they are in when they are
completing the measures. Gana and colleagues found no evidence either for the
unidimensionality of the original 28-item BPS (as claimed by Farmer & Sundberg, 1986) or
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for the two-factor models of BPS proposed by Gana & Akremi (1991) and Vodanovich,
Wallace & Kass (2005). And although they did confirm the unidimensionality of SBPS,1 the
internal reliability of SBPS (as given by Cronbach’s alpha coefficient) was found to be low
(ranging from 0.5 0.68).2 Furthermore, when they applied a trait-state-occasion model to
SBPS scores, they reported that only 28% of the variance in the scores across the 6-year
period was due to a trait-like component (of the remaining 72%, 8% was due to state
boredom and 64% to measurement errors). If less than one third of the variance of the
SBPS score can be attributed to a trait component, then SBPS does not seem to be a great
measure of trait boredom, at least for the participants of Gana et al.’s study (i.e., elders).
What do the foregoing considerations show? First, although previous factor analytic
studies supported the view that BPS is a multidimensional scale, we now know that such
findings were problematic. Second, the most recent studies of the short form of BPS (SBPS)
provide initial support for the claim that there is a unitary construct that such scale is trying
to capture, although the exact nature of this construct remains obscure. Third, and most
importantly, it is unclear what conclusions, if any, one is warranted to draw about the nature
of state boredom from factor analytic studies on measures of boredom proneness.
Regardless of whether a measure of boredom proneness is unidimensional or
multidimensional, there is no immediate passage from the factor structure or dimensionality
of that measure to the nature of the construct that the measure is thought to assess. Even
worse, there is no easy way of drawing inferences about the nature of state boredom from
claims regarding the dimensionality of a measure of trait boredom. This is especially the case
given uncertainty as to what BPS (or some short form of the scale) is measuring (Danckert et
al., 2018a, p. 36; Gana, Broc, & Bailly, 2019) and theoretical disputes regarding the nature of
personality traits and the relationship of such traits to states (Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman,
2009). Thus, the best we can conclude from factor analytic studies on measures of boredom
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1 This was at least the case when they performed cross-sectional Confirmatory Factor
Analyses (CFAs) on the data retrieved from each study. When they instead performed longitudinal
CFAs, the single-factor model fit worsened. For the fit indices, see Gana, Broc, and Bailly (2019), p.
251.
2 The reported Cronbach’s alphas for SBPS were substantially lower than what Struk et al.
(2017) previously reported (namely, 0.88). One possible explanation of this discrepancy might be the
fact that Gana et al.’s data comes from studies involving the elderly whereas Struk et al.’s study
involved undergraduate students. For some initial support for the relevance of age when interpreting
measures of boredom proneness, see Isacescu, Struk & Danckert (2016).
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proneness is that they give us no reason to think that state boredom is not a unitary
phenomenon.
4. The Issue of Arousal
4.1 Overview
In the previous section, it was mentioned that there are two potential sources of support for
the claim that state boredom is not a unitary construct. Whereas the first source was related
to the purported multidimensionality of BPS, the second concerns the state of boredom
directly—it pertains to its relationship to arousal.
Arousal is typically conceived of as a measure of physiological activation, that is, it
represents the extent to which our bodies are prepared for action. Arousal is thought to vary
on a continuum: from “low arousal,” an activation level that occurs in calm or deactivated
states (e.g., relaxation or depression), to “high arousal,” an activation level that occurs in
states of excitement and extreme effort (e.g., exuberant joy or anger) (Picard, Fedor, and
Ayzenberg, 2015). Different emotions come with different arousal levels insofar as their
presence is correlated with various patterns of behavioral, somatovisceral, and cortical
activity. Furthermore, our emotional experience is influenced by our awareness of (some of)
those physiological changes. Because of such observations, most researchers assume arousal
to be essential both to the experience of an emotion (Russell, Feldman, & Barrett, 1999) and
to the emotion itself (e.g., Berlyne, 1960; Damasio, 1993; Frijda, 1986).
Is boredom a state of low or high arousal? The literature offers no definitive answer.
Boredom has been described as a state of low arousal, as a state of high arousal, and as a
state of mixed arousal (for references, see Elpidorou 2018b). A review of the literature
reveals that the majority of definitions and characterizations of boredom render boredom a
state of low arousal (see Vogel-Walcutt et al., 2012). Such an attitude is consistent with the
pre-theoretical understanding of boredom as an apathetic (or lethargic) state. However,
qualitative data on the character of the experience of boredom (Goetz et al., 2014; Harris,
2000; Martin, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006) do not provide conclusive support for the claim that
boredom should be understood as a low arousal state. Although individuals often comment
that in a state of boredom they feel tired and lethargic, they also report feelings of
restlessness, anxiety, irritability, and frustration (Harris, 2000; Martin, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006).
In addition, the correlates or effects of boredom suggest either a state of high arousal, when
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aggression or stress follow boredom, or a state of low arousal, when depressed feelings or
resignation follow (van Hooft & van Hooff, 2018).
What is more, studies utilizing direct measures of physiological arousal have linked
boredom to both decreases and increases in arousal. For example, Pattyn et al. (2008) found
that during a prolonged target detection task—a presumably boring task—participants’ heart
rate decreased over time. London et al. (1972) reported that a boring task produces an
increase in levels of galvanic skin potential (Study I) and heart rate (Study II). Oshuga,
Shimono, & Genno (2001)’s study offers supporting evidence for the claim that boredom
gives rise to an increase in autonomic arousal. During the performance of a monotonous
task, Oshuga and colleagues observed that irregularity in respiration increased. It should be
noted, however, that in their explanation of this finding the authors propose that such an
increase might be the result of the subjects’ fighting against sleepiness, something that would
suggest that boredom is a mixed state in terms of arousal. Chanel et al. (2008) recorded
peripheral physiological activity while participants played Tetris at varying difficulty levels.
They reported that in the easy level condition (which was classified as boring), participants
showed higher skin resistance, higher skin temperature, but lower heart rate than participants
who played the game at medium or hard difficulty levels.
Merrifield & Danckert (2014) observed that during boredom induction there was a
linear increase in heart rate but a linear decrease in skin conductance levels (SCLs). They also
found that individuals who scored higher on BPS exhibited higher mean heart rate during
boring mood induction. Lastly, Danckert et al. (2018a) asked participants to read both a
boring and an interesting story (either in that order or in reverse). During the reading tasks,
and at pseudorandom intervals, participants were prompted with questions designed to
assess their levels of boredom, mind-wandering, restlessness, and sleepiness. Dackert and
colleagues reported a number of intriguing findings. Most relevant for present purposes was
the finding that self-reports of sleepiness rose with rising levels of state boredom. This
finding provides strong support for the claim that boredom is, at least sometimes,
subjectively experienced as a low arousal state. In addition, Danckert and colleagues found
that state boredom, mind-wandering, sleepiness, and restlessness were highest for the boring
story, if it was read second. (When the boring story was read first, there was no significant
difference between restlessness during the boring story and restlessness during the
interesting one.) This finding shows that under certain conditions (i.e., when a boring task
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follows an interesting one), boredom can be experienced as both a low and high arousal
state. “Taken together,” the researchers write, “our findings on sleepiness and restlessness
suggest that episodes of boredom include both low and high arousal experiences as the
individual attempts to engage (or re-engage) with a task at hand.” (Danckert et al., 2018a, p.
35)
4.2 From Arousal to Heterogeneity? Not So Quick
The mixed results regarding boredom’s relationship to arousal could be thought of as
preliminary support for the claim that depending on their associated level of physiological
arousal, different types of boredom exist. Goetz and colleagues (2014) draw precisely this
conclusion. In two studies (N=63 and N=80), Goetz and colleagues obtained real-time data
regarding the experience of boredom using experience-sampling method and when they
analyzed the data with respect to valence and arousal using multilevel latent profile analyses,
they found five types of boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, reactant, and apathetic
boredom. Both indifferent and apathetic boredom were categorized as low arousal states,
although they differed in terms of valence—the former (indifferent boredom) had a slightly
positive valence whereas the second (apathetic boredom) was negatively valenced.
Calibrating, searching, and reactant boredom were all close in terms of valence (they fell
somewhere in the middle of the valence scale) but had different levels of arousal, even
though all three of them were categorized as high arousal states.
The reported findings are intriguing, they pertain directly to the issue of the
heterogeneity of the construct of state boredom, and the study has now become a popular
reference point in discussions surrounding the nature of state boredom. All the same, a
careful consideration of their study ultimately reveals a number of important concerns with
their reasoning that militate against the acceptance of their proposed typology of boredom.
(i) Positive valence: One of the types of boredom (indifferent boredom) reported
by Goetz and colleagues is said to have a slightly positive valence. Such a result ought to give
us pause. It runs counter to our commonsense understanding of boredom which takes
boredom to be an aversive state. It opposes most conceptual accounts of boredom that have
placed great emphasis on boredom’s negative character. And it challenges empirical
investigations of state boredom, including attempts to devise measures of state boredom
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(Fahlman et al., 2013). Furthermore, in a large scale study that captured 1.1 million
emotional and time-use reports from almost 4000 subjects, Chin et al. (2017) reported that
although boredom often co-occurs with other negative affective states and emotions
(loneliness, anger, sadness, and worry), it rarely co-occurs with positive emotions. This result
is again in conflict with what Goetz and colleagues reported regarding the first type of
boredom.
(ii) Temporality: The temporal relationship (if any) between the different types of
boredom was not examined by Goetz and colleagues. This is an issue that deserves our
attention for it might turn out to be that under certain conditions boredom’s physiological
arousal changes as a function of time (low arousal boredom can become high arousal or vice
versa) (see also Mills & Christoff, 2018). If that is the case, then it becomes much harder to
judge whether differences in reported arousal levels are indications of different types of
boredom or indications of different phases of one and the same boredom state.
(iii) Measures of arousal: An additional issue with the study is that arousal was
measured by self-reports (participants had to complete a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1
(calm) to 5 (fidgety)). Consequently, Goetz and et al. rest their case on self-reports of arousal
levels. But without additional measures of arousal, we do not know if the divisions that they
found are specific to subjective judgments of arousal or replicate for other ways of
measuring arousal. It is possible that if other measures were used, one would have obtained a
different taxonomy of boredom.
(iv) Mixed emotions: Outside of control environments, individuals experience
simultaneously a plethora of emotions. For instance, within academic contexts, it has been
shown that anxiety can co-occur with positive emotions such as excitement, happiness, and
interest (Moeller, Salmela-Aro, et al., 2015; Pekrun et al., 2002), and, during work, stress was
found to be accompanied by positive emotions, at least for some individuals (Simmons &
Nelson, 2007). Thus, by being asked to report on their experience of boredom it is possible
that individuals were reporting implicitly on their emotional experiences in general. For
example, if one is both angry and bored and is asked to rate the arousal level of their
experience of boredom, it is likely that such rating will reflect the arousal level of not only
their experience of boredom but also of anger. As mentioned above, Chin et al. (2017)’s
large-scale study found that boredom co-occurs with a number of negative affective states
and emotions. A different large-scale study corroborates this claim. Trampe, Quoidbach, &
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Taquet (2015) utilized a free mobile application in order to measure various aspects of the
users’ psychological experiences by prompting them to answer short questionnaires at
random times throughout the day. More than 60,000 users downloaded the application and
the researchers collected half a million completed questionnaires. What the researchers
found was that, on average, individuals reported experiencing some emotional experience
90% of the time. They also observed that individuals experienced more than one emotion at
the same time. Indeed, 33% of the time, individuals experienced at least one positive and
one negative emotion simultaneously (cf. Moeller et al. 2018). Taken together, such findings
make it hard to draw any definitive conclusions regarding the typology of boredom from
Goetz and colleagues’ reports. It is possible that the different types of boredom correspond
to mixed emotional experiences—experiences that include boredom in addition to other
emotions.
(v) Guiding assumption. The most serious issue with using Goetz et al.’s study as
evidence in support of distinct types of boredom has to do with the guiding assumption of
their study. Goetz and colleagues take it as an unproblematic datum that differences in
arousal are sufficient to individuate between different types of boredom. Their research is
guided by the adoption of a circumplex model of affect (Russell, 1980) according to which
“discreet affective states are characterized by the orthogonal dimensions of valence and
arousal(Goetz et al., 2014, p. 403). The researchers used latent profile analysis in order to
determine the different types of boredom, but their analysis was predicated on the
assumption that the relevant variables are those of valence and arousal. Such a guiding
hypothesis excludes the possibility of the same emotional state with mixed arousal levels (i.e.,
both high and low). What this means is that Goetz’s et al. study does not show that there are
distinct types of boredom. It could only show that if we had already accepted the claim that
boredom is an emotion of pure arousal—either low or high. But since it is still an open
question whether boredom can be a state of mixed arousal, or even a state that sometimes is
low and sometimes high on arousal, all that the study shows is that the experience of
boredom can be associated with differing levels of subjectively reported arousal.
These five points strongly oppose the adoption of the proposed typology of boredom by
Goetz and colleagues. The claim that there are five (distinct) types of boredom is, at this
stage, a claim that cannot be accepted on the basis of available evidence.
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5. Beyond Arousal
If a feature or property F is a determining characteristic of an entity E, then the absence of F
allows us to determine the absence of E. A determining characteristic in this sense is a
necessary but not a sufficient condition for E. Hence, if being a state of low arousal is a
determining characteristic of boredom, then low arousal would be necessary for boredom
because all states of boredom would have to exhibit low arousal, but not sufficient for
boredom because not all states of low arousal would be states of boredom. The purpose of
this section is to argue that arousal (either low or high) should not be taken to be a
determining characteristic of boredom. Three reasons are offered in support of this
contention.
5.1 The Construct of Arousal
Arousal has been traditionally conceived of as a unitary state or construct. Although such a
conception of arousal is supported by the observation that the subjective experience of
arousal is generally a unified experience, research over the past half century demonstrates
that arousal is a matter of tremendous complexity and unlikely to be a unitary construct.
Arousal can be measured via different means. It can be measured subjectively
through self-reports. If arousal is operationalized as a physiological state or process, then
such a measure will be indirect and will assume that reports of one’s conscious experience
track (more or less reliably) physiological arousal. However, individuals do not have
immediate and explicit access to autonomic and somatic activity (Barrett et al., 2007), and
although subjectively felt arousal is related to physiological activity, the two fail to correlate
highly (Barrett et al., 2004; Wiens, 2005). Because of such problems with subjective reports
of physiological activation, arousal is usually assessed directly: behavioral measures,
autonomic nervous system measures (including respiratory, cardiovascular, and
electrodermal measures), general metabolic measures, and measures of cortical arousal have
all been used in order to quantify physiological activation. Such direct measures, however,
often fail to produce a unified arousal system insofar as they do not correlate highly with one
another (Blascovich, 1990, 1992). Early studies illustrated the dissociation between
behavioral and cortical measures of arousal (Bradley & Elkes, 1953; Feldman & Waller,
1962). Other studies reported a similar pattern for measures of autonomic arousal—they co-
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vary neither highly with each other nor with behavioral performance (e.g., Lacey, 1959,
1967). In addition, Picard and colleagues (2015) reported results from empirical studies that
demonstrate clear left versus right asymmetries in emotional arousal, when it is measured
through electrodermal activity. As the researchers write, “some kind of arousal is happening
on the right [side of the body], and it can be very different from the left” (p. 11).
Consequently, traditional measures of electrodermal activity (of only the left side) can lead to
misjudgments regarding arousal. Such findings, coupled with the fact that the autonomic
nervous system can give rise to differential activity across different end-organ systems
(Berntson & Cacioppo, 2007), make it clear that one cannot generalize from measurements
of one component of a physiological response system to some other response system.
What is more, it is now established that the autonomic nervous system can give rise
to highly complex patterns of activation that depend upon relatively subtle environmental
and psychological factors (for a discussion, see Norman, Berntson, & Cacioppo, 2014).
Furthermore, as Berntson and Cacioppo (2007) describe, there are complex interactions
between the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immune systems (see also: Besedovsky &
Sorkin, 1985; Kenney & Ganta, 2015). Indeed, given what we currently know about
neurophysiology and the effects of drugs on arousal, one cannot deny that multiple regions
of the brain and body are involved in arousal (Berntson, Sarter, & Cacioppo, 2003; Brown,
Purdon, & van Dort, 2011; Pfaff, Martin, & Faber, 2012). All in all, there is a large body of
evidence that makes it clear that arousal is not a unitary phenomenon. The term “arousal”
does not pick out one type of activity within our bodies but many different ones.
5.2 The Role of Arousal in Boredom
It was already mentioned that results regarding boredom’s relationship to arousal are
mixed—some report that boredom is a low arousal state, others that it is a high arousal state,
and others that it is (or can be) both. Researchers have offered accounts that aim to explain
how boredom can be a state of both low and high arousal, either at the same time or at
different moments. Three such accounts—none of which is incompatible with each other—
are briefly reviewed.
(1) The physiological expressions of emotions are dynamic processes that unfold
over time. As a consequence, both the type of systems that become activated during a given
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emotion and the intensity of such systems will vary over time (Fox, Kirwan, & Reeb-
Sutherland, 2012). One thus might appeal to the temporal profile of boredom and argue that
boredom can transform itself from an apathetic state to an agitated one (or vice versa)
depending on either endogenous or exogenous factors. Such a suggestion is articulated in
Eastwood et al. (2012) and repeated in Danckert et al. (2018a) and Elpidorou (2018b). It
holds that, initially, the experience of boredom will be manifested as a state of low arousal
because at the beginning stages of that experience subjects will find themselves disengaged.
Such a contention gains some support from research that shows that lower SCL is related to
decreased engagement of attention (Frith and Allen, 1983). As time progresses, however,
bored subjects will make an effort to engage with their environment. Such an attempt for
engagement will likely give rise to an increase in arousal, especially if it is unsuccessful. And
if one’s attempts for escape continue to be unsuccessful, then one might give up and return
to a state of low arousal (see also Mills and Christoff, 2018).
An appeal to the temporal profile of boredom can explain why there is reported
disagreement between direct measures of arousal: results from different measures will
depend on when arousal was assessed and on whether or not participants were able to
successfully alleviate their experience of boredom during the experiment (through
cognitively reassessing their situation, mind-wandering, or gamefying their task).
Furthermore, the proposed account can also account for mixed results in subjective
experiences of arousal. Given the dynamic nature of the experience of boredom, individuals
who report on their experience of boredom may be recalling the first (apathetic) stage of
their experience, the second (agitated) state, or both.
(2) One could maintain that boredom’s relationship to arousal is context-dependent.
For example, van Hooft & van Hooff (2018) have offered preliminary evidence in support
of the claim that boring situations with low perceived task autonomy are more likely to give
rise to agitated boredom than boring situations with high perceived task autonomy.
Unfortunately, the proposal by van Hooft & van Hooff cannot be the whole story. There is
more to boredom’s relationship to arousal than perceived task autonomy. For instance, in
the study conducted by Danckert et al. (2018a) the same task (reading a boring story) gave
rise to both high and low arousal even though the perceived autonomy of this task remained
the same. Hence, if the arousal profile of the state of boredom is to be explained by an
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appeal to features of our situation, the role of additional situational characteristics (ones
other than just perceived autonomy) must be shown to be relevant to physiological arousal.
(3) A third possible explanation as to how boredom can be both a high and low
arousal state finds recourse in the directional fractionation hypothesis (Lacey 1959; Lacey &
Lacey, 1970). According to this hypothesis, it is possible for a state such as boredom to
induce differential autonomic changes. Merrifield & Danckert (2014) consider this possibility
and explain how boredom can give rise both to high arousal (higher heart rate) and low
arousal (decrease in SCL).
In sum, the literature contains different attempts to explain how boredom’s arousal can
change, either due to environmental or endogenous factors. If any combination of such
accounts turns out to be correct, then there is a way of rendering consistent the mixed
results in the literature without demanding that boredom is a heterogeneous construct. More
to the point, if it turns out that boredom’s arousal can some times be low and some times
high, then such a variability in arousal constitutes an argument against treating arousal as a
determining characteristic of boredom—whether arousal is low or high, it may not matter
for boredom. It is worth adding that in a study designed to examine how boredom differs
from a number of other negative emotional experiences, Van Tilburg and Igou (2017) found
that boredom is reported by individuals to be a state of low arousal (Studies 1 and 2).
However, the researchers also found that “arousal was of relatively little utility for
distinguishing boredom in particular(p. 317). Other characteristics of boredom, such as
perceived meaninglessness during the experience of boredom and its relationship to
attention, were far more effective means of individuating boredom.
5.3 Variation in Emotions
It is undeniable that many emotions bear in us (our bodies, our brains, or our metabolic
systems) their mark and it is through that mark that we come to recognize them. What is far
less clear is the precise nature of their physiological mark and the role that such a mark plays
both in the experience of emotions and in their individuation.
Consider first empirical examinations of emotions’ relationship to somatovisceral
changes. Cannon (1927) argued that physiological responses were too coarse to account for
the specificity and distinctness of experienced emotions, and Schachter and Singer (1962)
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provided empirical support for the claim that the same pattern of autonomic activity could
result in different emotional experiences. Such early work, however, did not settle the issue
and published studies by Ekman, Levenson, & Fiesen (1983) and Levenson, Ekman, &
Friesen (1990) offered evidence for the claim that autonomic activity can distinguish
between emotional experiences. For instance, Ekman and colleagues (1983) recorded heart
rate, finger temperature, skin resistance, and forearm muscle tension while subjects
completed tasks designed to elicit in them the emotional states of anger, fear, sadness,
happiness, surprise, and disgust. The researchers reported that a combination of autonomic
activity measures could be used to differentiate between (some) negative emotions.
Supporting findings were also reported by Levenson et al. (1990).
These initial findings proved to be tremendously influential for they gave rise to a
research program within psychology dedicated to the investigation of emotion-specific
autonomic changes. The ensuing work is too voluminous to be summarized here but meta-
analyses conducted by Cacioppo and colleagues (Cacioppo et al. 2000; Cacioppo, Gardner,
& Berntson, 1997) provide little evidence for the claim that distinct emotions can be
associated with distinct and identifiable patterns of somatovisceral changes. Furthermore,
even studies that were published after these meta-analyses failed to offer disconfirming
evidence to the conclusions of the meta-analyses. For instance, Kreibig (2010) reviewed 134
studies on the relationship between emotion and peripheral physiological responses. The
review did report some evidence in support of the claim that different emotions are
associated with different patterns of autonomic activity. Still, the review revealed that no
emotion type had a unique autonomic arousal profile and that published studies have yielded
conflicting results regarding autonomic activation during emotional experiences. Lastly, two
additional studies using multivariate approaches, one by Stephens, Christie, & Friedman
(2010) and the other by Kragel and LaBar (2013), found that autonomic variables were able
to successfully classify emotions at a rate of 44.6% and 58.0% respectively. Such rates of
success, however, do not provide us with strong reasons to believe in the existence of
emotion-specific patterns of autonomic activity. In sum, although it is clear that emotions
are related to autonomic activity, such activity does not appear to distinguish reliably
between different emotional experiences.
The situation does not change if we move from an examination of autonomic
responses to an examination of facial or behavioral changes during emotional experiences. In
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the case of facial changes, facial electromyography measurements are reliable proxies of
negative versus positive affect (Cacioppo et al., 2000) and of the intensity of the affect
(Messinger, 2002). Still, they fail to reliably differentiate between distinct emotions (Barrett
2006a). Overt behavior also fails to distinguish between distinct emotion types. Distinct
behaviors are associated with the same emotion (think of freezing, fleeing, or tonic
immobility in the case of fear) and the same behavior can be associated with distinct
emotions (attack behavior can be found both in fear and anger) (Adolphs, 2013; Blanchard
& Blanchard, 2003).
A similar story is told when we turn our attention to the search of neural signatures
or correlates of distinct emotions. Despite expectations, meta-analytic studies were unable to
find any consistent evidence for distinct and identifiable neural correlates of anger, sadness,
disgust, and happiness (Murphy, Nimmo-Smith, & Lawrence, 2003; Phan et al., 2002). Even
the often-reported correspondence between the onset of fear and activation in amygdala
does not always occur. Only 60% of the studies that were considered in the meta-analytic
studies noted the fear-amygdala correspondence. Furthermore, such a correspondence can
be explained in a way that does not render activation in the amygdala the neural correlate of
fear (Barrett, 2006).
Such findings, most of which are by now well known and much discussed, are
presented here not in order to suggest that there is no point in studying the physiological
mechanisms of emotions. Nor are they presented in order to signal approval for a
conclusion that some have drawn on the basis of these findings, namely, that emotions are
not natural kinds (Barrett, 2006). In the present context, these findings are reviewed because
collectively they constitute a strong case against the claim that all instances of an emotion
type (e.g., fear, boredom, anger) have the same neurophysiological signatures. There is
remarkable variability in the manner in which emotions are behaviorally,
neurophysiologically, and even phenomenally expressed (Barrett, 2006). The existence of
such variability should be taken seriously. In the case of boredom, we ought to try our best
to understand it and not to explain it away, either by quickly finding recourse in distinct
types of boredom types or by choosing one type of arousal as a necessary condition for
boredom.
5.4 Summary
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The construct of arousal itself does not appear to be a unified one. There is incredible
variability when it comes to the neurophysiological and behavioral correlates and
antecedents of emotions. And there are theoretical and experimental considerations that
suggest that arousal might not be a determining factor of the presence of boredom. This
three-fold conclusion does not negate the importance of arousal for the experience of
boredom. Elevated activation might prepare us for action and thus help us to move out of a
boring situation. Low arousal might be a coping mechanism insofar as it can help us to
disengage from a boring situation. The issue of arousal is important but not definitional: it
does not settle by itself whether a state should count as a state of boredom or not. If we
wish to determine whether there is unity or disunity in boredom we need to look elsewhere.
6. Unity Through Function
The functional view can provide an explanation as to why boredom, despite its different
behavioral and physiological manifestations, can be considered to be a unitary construct. A
functional account of boredom takes boredom to be a state that serves an important
function in our everyday lives. It is this function that is a determining characteristic of
boredom and not any of its specific features (e.g., valence, arousal, or behavioral
manifestations). In fact, those features are features of boredom because they contribute to
the exercise of the function of boredom. They are unified under one construct, in other
words, precisely because they work together and toward the execution of a common
function.
What then is the function of boredom and how does it relate to boredom’s known
characteristics? Boredom is a functional emotion insofar as it is both informative and
regulatory of one’s behavior (for detailed discussions of this position, see Bench and Lench,
2013; Elpidorou, 2014, 2018a, 2018b; Danckert et al., 2018b). Boredom informs one of the
presence of an unsatisfactory situation and, at the same time, motivates one to pursue a new
goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful. Boredom is
thus both an affective signal and a drive.
Boredom’s function is movement (physical or mental) (see Elpidorou, 2018a), but
not just any type of movement. Boredom aims not simply to move individuals from one
situation to another but to facilitate a type of goal-directed motion—one that takes agents
away from unsatisfactory situations. Bored individuals have a strong desire to escape their
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current situation and they will go to great lengths to achieve such escape (Elpidorou, in
press; Havermans et al., 2015; Nederkoorn et al., 2016; Wilson et al., 2014). However, they
do not simply wish to replace their situation with any alternative situation. They do not want
to move from one boring situation to another. Instead, in a state of boredom, one wishes
both to stop doing what one is currently doing and to engage in a more satisfactory task
(Fahlman et al., 2013; Harris, 2000; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012). Sometimes that more
satisfactory task will simply be a task that is novel or different than the current one (Bench
and Lench, 2018). At other times, the more satisfactory task will be one that is taken to be
meaningful (e.g., reading a book, watching a documentary, spending time with a friend) or
one that contributes to one’s enjoyment (e.g., spending time on YouTube, playing a game on
one’s phone).
The functional view of boredom is consistent with the results of numerous studies
that explored the antecedents, concomitants, and effects (or correlates) of the state of
boredom. Boredom is both conceptualized and reported to be an aversive experience. The
functional model explains how its aversive character is a necessary element of boredom. If
the experience of boredom were not unpleasant, then boredom would not signal
dissatisfaction. Importantly, it would also fail to act as a motivating mechanism that
promotes the pursuit of goals and activities that are perceived as more interesting, engaging,
or meaningful. Thus, boredom’s capacity to move us depends partly upon its negative
valence and the information that such negative experience carries about our current
situation.
Moreover, boredom is characterized by a strong desire to engage in a task other than
the one with which one is currently engaging (Fahlman et al., 2013; Van Tilburg & Igou,
2012). Such a feature of boredom is also accounted by the functional view insofar as it
contributes to the exercise of its function: boredom is a state from which we are motivated
to seek relief or escape. Indeed, unlike frustration (another negatively-valenced state), which
may often act as a drive to continue to pursue the situation that frustrates us (typically, a
blocked goal) (Amsel, 1992), boredom acts as a drive to give up on the situation that bores
us.
In turn, it has been shown that both attentional difficulties and a perception of
meaninglessness can give rise to the experience of boredom (Westgate and Wilson, 2018). It
has also been reported that during boredom individuals experience difficulties in
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concentrating and maintaining attention (Damrad-Frye and Laird 1989; Eastwood et al.,
2012; Harris, 2000), that they perceive their situation as meaningless (Chan et al., 2018; Van
Tilburg & Igou, 2012), and that they are prone to mind-wandering (Harris, 2000; Martin,
Sadlo, & Stew, 2006). The claim that attentional difficulties are likely antecedents of
boredom is entirely consistent with the functional view. All that the functional view requires
is that boredom arises on account of the perception that our situation is unsatisfactory and
does not promote our interests. The inability to pay attention to a situation can give rise
precisely to such a perception. A situation with which we cannot cognitively engage is a
situation that ceases to be relevant to us and to our goals.
At the same time, the functional model can explain why attentional difficulties are a
part of the experience of boredom: they are so because they contribute to the exercise of
boredom’s function. In other words, boredom does what it does partly because of the fact
that during boredom we cannot pay attention to our situation. Lack of attention disengages
us from our current situation, thereby making it more likely for us to seek out an alternative
situation. A situation that cannot hold our attention is a situation that appears to be foreign
to us. We cannot become invested in it, regardless of our wishes and intentions, and, because
of that, we will be motived to pursue a different situation (or goal).
Something similar holds for boredom’s relationship to meaninglessness. The
functional model is in line with views that hold that perception of meaninglessness is an
antecedent of boredom insofar as such a perception will render our current situation
unsatisfactory thereby leading to the experience of boredom (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012).
Perceived lack of meaning might even interact with our ability to pay attention. That is to
say, if a situation is perceived as lacking in meaning, it is possible that we will not cognitively
engage with it, and vice versa. Still, the influence of perceived lack of meaning can be
dissociated from the influence of attentional difficulties (for experimental support, see
Westgate & Wilson, 2018). Watching a rerun of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time is likely
boring but not because it is hard for us to concentrate or to pay attention to the show. The
boringness of such a situation stems from the fact that the show is perceived as meaningless,
which is to say that it is not taken to promote any goals that we consider to be important for
us.
The functional model also explains why a perception of meaningless is often a part
of the experience of boredom (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2017). The perception of meaningless
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helps us to disengage with our situation insofar as it signals to us that our current situation is
lacking in some respect. Such a perception of meaninglessness is not merely a crisis of
meaning (i.e., a realization that we are doing something that is not meaningful). It is also a
call for a search for meaning. The experience of lack of meaning, in other words, is not an
apathetic experience. Instead, it can give rise to various meaning reestablishing strategies, all
of which promote the pursuit of a type of goal-directed movement (Van Tilburg & Igou,
2012). Boredom’s capacity to move us is helped by our desire to find meaning and purpose
in life (Frankl, 1962).
Lastly, mind-wandering also contributes to the function of boredom. First, it does so
by decoupling us from the boring situation that we are facing. Second, it helps to make
salient to us alternative situations and goals that we would rather be pursuing (Bench &
Lench, 2013; Eastwood et al., 2012; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). Third, mind-wandering
could act as a catalyst for boredom’s ability to promote movement insofar as it may
exacerbate the experience of boredom. That is because mind-wandering can lead one to
unfavorably compare their current situation to a more enjoyable one. In doing so, one’s
experience can become even more aversive (Critcher & Gilovich, 2010).
The functional view thus accounts for all of the characteristics of boredom that the
literature has highlighted. More importantly, the functional account does not merely explain
the presence of such findings, it also shows how they can all come together to form a unified
construct: they are unified precisely because of their role in the function of boredom.
What about arousal? Does the functional account explain the mixed results reported
in the literature? Given the arguments of the previous section, boredom’s relationship to
arousal should not be taken to be a determining or individuating characteristic of boredom.
In fact, the functional account does not demand any specific neurophysiological or
behavioral activation. It is consistent both with findings that report boredom to be either a
low arousal or a high arousal state. A state of low arousal will likely help individuals to
disengage from situations that are perceived as boring, whereas a state of high arousal will
make it more likely that individuals initiate movement (physical or mental) in order to
counter the effects of boredom. The functional view is also consistent with findings that
report the presence of both low and high arousal during the experience of boredom. This is
either because the functional view can appeal to differential activity across end-organ
systems during boredom or because it can maintain that, during the experience of boredom,
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physiological activation fluctuates depending on the presence of various endogenous or
exogenous factors. From the perspective of a functional account, measurements of arousal
are not very informative. What is informative are the effects that such patterns of
physiological activity have on the whole organism. Boredom is not a state of the brain nor
one of the nervous system. Instead, boredom arises only at the level of the organism.
Consequently, we can only properly understand it at this level. And a study of boredom at
that level reveals that its determining characteristic is its function.
7. A Complication?
Westgate and Wilson (2018) criticized the functional account of boredom on grounds that it
fails to accommodate for findings that demonstrate the involvement of attentional
difficulties in boredom. Functional views of boredom, they write, “do not directly account
for boredom’s well-documented attentional component: they explain why people feel bored
when they don’t want to be doing something, but they do not address the critical question of
whether people can engage in the activity in the first place.” (p. 4)
Westgate and Wilson maintain that in order to understand boredom one needs to
understand both (i) cases in which boredom arises because one does not want to do
something; and (ii) cases in which boredom arises because one cannot cognitively engage
with a situation despite one’s desire to do so. In their paper, Westgate and Wilson offer
evidence in support of this view, what they call “The Meaning and Attention Component
(MAC) Model of Boredom.” According to this model, “boredom…is experienced when
people feel either unable or unwilling to cognitively engage with their current activity” (p.5).
The problem with functional accounts, Westgate and Wilson contend, is that they only
explain boredom as a result of one’s unwillingness to engage with a situation because one
deems such a situation to be lacking in meaning. Functional accounts, Westgate and Wilson
write, “treat meaning as the primary informational function of boredom” (p.4, note 1) and
because they do so, they delineate boredom function’s solely in terms of its relationship to
meaning: boredom informs one of a meaningless situation and motivates one to pursue
situations that are perceived as more meaningful. But if Westgate and Wilson are correct to
hold that lack of meaning and attentional difficulties are independent determinants of
boredom, then functional accounts of boredom are too limited: they tell us only part of the
story. What is more, because of the influence of both lack of meaning and attentional
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difficulties, there will be three different profiles of boredom: attentional boredom, which occurs
due to one’s inability to successfully engage one’s attention in a satisfying (or meaningful)
activity; meaningless boredom, which occurs when one’s activity is perceived as meaningless; and
a mixed kind of boredom that occurs when both attentional difficulties and the perception of
meaninglessness are present.
Westgate and Wilson conceive of the results of their study as constituting an
objection to functional accounts of boredom. The truth, however, is that there is nothing
incompatible between Westgate and Wilson’s account and the functional account of
boredom, at least as the latter was presented above. It is true that often proponents of the
functional account emphasize the role of meaning in boredom (see, e.g., Van Tilburg &
Igou, 2012; Elpidorou, 2018a)—they either underline that boredom informs us of the
presence of a meaningless situation or highlight boredom’s power to motivate us to pursue
more meaningful goals. Still, the functional account, qua a functional view, does not demand
that boredom’s sole function pertains to meaning. Indeed, some proponents of the
functional view do not just talk about meaning but also discuss the role of satisfaction and
interest in boredom (Danckert et al., 2018b; Elpidorou, 2018b). Others focus instead
primarily on goals (Bench and Lench, 2013) or on opportunity costs (Kurzban et al., 2013).
Regardless of how functional accounts have been presented in the past, the functional
account can be easily expanded to accommodate Westgate and Wilson’s findings. In fact, in
the previous section, it was shown precisely how both attentional difficulties and the
perception of meaningless are important aspects of boredom—either as antecedents or as
parts of the experience of boredom. There is no single cause of boredom: monotony,
repetition, meaningless, simplicity, or complexity can all give rise to boredom. And there is
no single way of alleviating boredom: going for a walk, reading a good book, watching a
movie, playing a game, shocking oneself, eating a desert, and engaging in risky behavior are
all ways of dealing with boredom. Still, all instances of boredom are signs of the presence of
our unfulfilled desire to engage with our situation in a desired manner and also a motivation
to fulfill that desire by doing something other than what we are currently doing. Understood
as such, the functional account of boredom is rendered consisted with Westgate and
Wilson’s findings. Not only that but it also explains why the three “profiles” of boredom
that Westgate and Wilson highlight are indeed profiles of boredom and not distinct types of
affective states. They are profiles of boredom because they all share a common function:
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they attempt to move the subject out of a situation that is not satisfactory (because it is
meaningless, because the subject cannot cognitively engage with it, or because of both) and
into one that is.
8. Conclusion
Previous literature noted that understanding boredom as a functional emotion (or affective
state) carries a number of advantages (Elpidorou, 2018b). In this paper, an additional benefit
of the functional view was presented. Without having to decide the ontology of emotions,
the functional account provides us with the means of understanding boredom as a unitary
construct. There might not be something that is neuronally, physiologically, or behaviorally
common among all instances of the emotion type that we call “boredom.” All the same,
there is still commonality at the level of the organism insofar as all instances of boredom
promote a specific type of goal-directed behavior.
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... Although this theory has recently received considerable attention both within psychology and philosophy, presentations of the theory have not specified with sufficient precision either its commitments or its consequences for the ontology of boredom. This is primarily because extant presentations of this theory have had different aims: some of them were exploratory, investigating the possibility that boredom is a functional emotion (Bench & Lench, 2013;Elpidorou, 2014Elpidorou, , 2016Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012); others explored the consequences of a functional account for behavior and self-regulation (Van Tilburg & Igou 2011, 2017aElpidorou 2018aElpidorou , 2018bElpidorou , 2020Danckert, Mugon, et al., 2018); and others used the functional account as a way of exploring novel approaches to boredom and its relationship to goal pursuit (Bench & Lench, 2013), effort (Kurzban et al., 2013), or arousal (Elpidorou 2021). Given the growing interest in the functional view of boredom, the time is right to take a closer view at the basic premises of the functional theory. ...
... Third, boredom is an experience that unfolds in time and because of that, it may oscillate from a state of high arousal to one of low arousal, or vice versa (Eastwood et al., 2012;cf. Danckert, Mugon, et al., 2018;Elpidorou, 2018bElpidorou, , 2021. It has been suggested that boredom may often begin as a state of low arousal because initially subjects find themselves unable to engage with their situation . ...
... Regarding the physiological correlates of boredom, available findings suggest that boredom is a state of low, high, or even mixed arousal. All three proposals have been defended in the literature (for a review, see Elpidorou 2021). Here, there is no need to settle the character of boredom's physiological arousal. ...
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The functional theory of boredom maintains that boredom ought to be defined in terms of its role in our mental and behavioral economy. Although the functional theory has recently received considerable attention, presentations of this theory have not specified with sufficient precision either its commitments or its consequences for the ontology of boredom. This essay offers an in-depth examination of the functional theory. It explains what boredom is according to the functional view; it shows how the functional theory can account for the known characteristics of boredom; and it articulates the theory's basic commitments, virtues, and limitations. Ultimately, by furthering our understanding of the functional theory of boredom, the essay contributes to a better theoretical grounding of boredom.
... Having said that, studies of boredom's phenomenology and physiological correlates reveal that boredom is a complex state. Depending on different factors, boredom can be a low arousal state, a high arousal state, or a state of mixed autonomic arousal (for a review, see Elpidorou 2021). As a state of low arousal, it can help us to disengage from our boring (and hence unsatisfactory, unengaging, or meaningless) situations. ...
... The world was, but no longer is, a match for our projects and concerns. reasonable to expect that wide jadedness will share certain characteristics with trait boredom (Farmer and Sundberg 1986) and existential boredom (Bargdill 2000;Elpidorou 2021; O'Brien 2021)-these forms of boredom involve a global perception of meaninglessness and an inability to conceive of oneself as an efficacious agent, and are closely connected to depression. If one is jaded with one's existence-that is, if one is jaded with all actual and potential activities and objects-then it is hard to see how one can be optimistic about one's future, motivated to act, and perceive one's world as a source of personal fulfilment. ...
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The essay contributes to the philosophical literature on emotions by advancing a detailed analysis of jadedness and by investigating whether jadedness can be subject to the various standards that are often thought to apply to our emotional states. The essay argues that jadedness is the affective experience of weariness, lack of care, and mild disdain with some object, and that it crucially involves the realisation that such an object was previously, but is no longer, significant to us. On the basis of such a characterisation, jadedness is shown to be an affective call to restructure our commitments and values in a manner that we no longer assign any kind of significance to its object. Precisely because of its potential to affect our lives in such a fashion, jadedness is shown to carry philosophical, psychological, and even social importance.
... 239-240). In a recent article, Elpidorou sets out some of the problems posed by the heterogeneity of boredom and proposes a functional solution (Elpidorou, 2021b). first situative level of boredom, time slows down and stagnates, in a dragging that is experienced as paralysing. ...
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Boredom is an affective experience that can involve pervasive feelings of meaninglessness, emptiness, restlessness, frustration, weariness and indifference, as well as the slowing down of time. An increasing focus of research in many disciplines, interest in boredom has been intensified by the recent Covid-19 pandemic, where social distancing measures have induced both a widespread loss of meaning and a significant disturbance of temporal experience. This article explores the philosophical significance of this aversive experience of ‘pandemic boredom.’ Using Heidegger’s work as a unique vantage point, this article draws on survey data collected by researchers in an ongoing project titled ‘Experiences of Social Distancing During the Covid-19 Pandemic’ to give an original phenomenological interpretation of the meaninglessness and monotony of pandemic boredom. On a Heideggerian interpretation, pandemic boredom involves either a situative confrontation with relative meaninglessness that upholds our absorption in the everyday world, or an existential confrontation with absolute meaninglessness that forces us to take up the question of our existence. Arguing that boredom during the pandemic makes this distinction difficult to sustain, I consider some of the ways in which pandemic boredom might be seen to expose and then exceed the distinctive methodological limitations of Heidegger’s philosophical interpretation of boredom.
... Notable recent exceptions notwithstanding (Tam et al., 2021; see also Elpidorou, 2021) theoretical accounts of boredom focus on boredom as a signal to redirect attention in the external world. However, boredom not only triggers attention to shift outward towards alternative activities, but also inwards towards alternative thoughts. ...
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In this chapter, the link between mind-wandering and boredom is introduced and defined. Despite the intuitive overlap between the two constructs, there is scarce empirical research that directly tests and theorizes their association. However, mind-wandering as a possible response to boredom, fits perfectly with current functional accounts of boredom. According to such accounts, boredom is conceptualized as a signal that a task at hand is not worth the effort. When no behavioral alternatives are available, an option that is always accessible is to let the mind wander. We suggest that mind-wandering is an exploratory response to boredom especially when a change in activity is not possible or not desired. We take into account different forms of mind-wandering as possible response to boredom, focusing in particular on spontaneous and deliberate mind-wandering. We then propose that the experience of boredom during mind-wandering can be explained by the intended level of control, rather than by the perception of control per se. Finally, we hope that the ideas presented here will inspire future research on the various possible ways in which boredom and mind-wandering might be related.
... Attention and meaning are independent causes of boredom and therefore can lead to different kinds of boredom experiences (Elpidorou, 2020;Westgate & Wilson, 2018). Deficits in meaning occur when existing activities do not seem to align with valued and salient goals (Baumeister & Landau, 2018;van Tilburg & Igou, 2012. ...
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Schools can be a place of both love and of cruelty. We examined one type of cruelty that occurs in the school context: sadism, that is, harming others for pleasure. Primarily, we proposed and tested whether boredom plays a crucial role in the emergence of sadistic actions at school. In two well-powered studies (N = 1038; student age range = 10–18 years) using both self- and peer-reports of students' boredom levels and their sadistic tendencies, we first document that sadistic behavior occurs at school, although at a low level. We further show that those students who are more often bored at school are more likely to engage in sadistic actions (overall r = .36, 95% CI [0.24, 0.49]). In sum, the present work contributes to a better understanding of sadism in schools and points to boredom as one potential motivator. We discuss how reducing boredom might help to prevent sadistic tendencies at schools.
... In turn, research on whether boredom is a high, low, or mixed arousal state has yielded inconsistent results, too. This has been met with calls to conceptualize boredom independently from arousal 37 , while other research has hinted at different types of boredom based on different arousalvalence configurations 38 . Thus, while boredom research is clearly flourishing, a heterogenous body of literature leaves many open questions. ...
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Boredom poses a fascinating riddle: Although it is a ubiquitous experience, lay people and researchers often struggle with expressing what boredom actually is, and how it should be differentiated from related or opposite psychological phenomena. In this chapter, we address this riddle in two parts. First, we define boredom and its function. We propose that boredom is a state of inadequate function utilization that occurs when reward prediction error has been minimized. Boredom's suggested evolutionary function is to drive exploration. Boredom is therefore understood to have a critical role for the effective regulation of behavior. Second, we differentiate boredom from a host of emotions and states it has frequently been likened to (or even been equated with), such as depression, amotivation, apathy or boredom being the polar opposite of flow.
... When do we get bored? Outside the sporting context, there is increasing empirical and theoretical work about boredom (e.g., Agrawal et al., 2021;Bench & Lench, 2013Danckert, 2019;Danckert et al., 2018;Eastwood et al., 2012;Elpidorou, 2018Elpidorou, , 2021Elpidorou, , 2022Mugon et al., 2018;Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012;Westgate & Wilson, 2018;Wolff & Martarelli, 2020). Current models explain when and why boredom might occur and integrate the important distinction between boredom as a transient cognitive-affective experience and boredom proneness, as the propensity of individuals to get bored more frequently and intensely and to perceive their entire life as boring . ...
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Recent research has identified boredom as a guiding signal in goal-directed behavior. As boredom activates a search for more valuable activities, it can consequently challenge goal-directed behavior; this is also expected to be the case in the sporting context. Here, we examined the experience of boredom in athletic training for a competition among 153 athletes with a cross-sectional questionnaire. We developed the questionnaire based on theoretical approaches to boredom. Specifically, we considered two core triggers of boredom (i.e., the ability to remain engaged with the training and the value that athletes ascribe to the training). We found that the positive relationship between the difficulty of engagement in athletic training and the experience of boredom was moderated by the value ascribed to the training. In other words, it seems that the value ascribed to the training can play a protective role, in that high levels of value nullify the positive relationship between difficulty of engagement and boredom experienced in sports. Future research is needed to better understand the antecedents and consequences of boredom experiences in specific sporting contexts, which could be achieved, for example, by differentiating between individual and collective activities or competitions and training situations.
... Interestingly, this implies that boredom-inducing situations, such as environments offering only low information input to the brain, are avoided when possible. In these situations, boredom is therefore believed to act as a beneficial driver preventing individuals to get stuck and to seek novel information instead 33,[51][52][53] . This assumption is corroborated by the results of the present study and furthermore shows congruence to other theories that identified boredom as an indicator of rising opportunity costs 54 and emphasized it being a central mediator of exploration-exploitation tradeoffs in respect to predictive coding 52 . ...
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Boredom has been defined as an aversive mental state that is induced by the disability to engage in satisfying activity, most often experienced in monotonous environments. However, current understanding of the situational factors inducing boredom and driving subsequent behavior remains incomplete. Here, we introduce a two-alternative forced-choice task coupled with sensory stimulation of different degrees of monotony. We find that human subjects develop a bias in decision-making, avoiding the more monotonous alternative that is correlated with self-reported state boredom. This finding was replicated in independent laboratory and online experiments and proved to be specific for the induction of boredom rather than curiosity. Furthermore, using theoretical modeling we show that the entropy in the sequence of individually experienced stimuli, a measure of information gain, serves as a major determinant to predict choice behavior in the task. With this, we underline the relevance of boredom for driving behavioral responses that ensure a lasting stream of information to the brain.
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