This article was originally published on Merion West.
In theory, the shutdowns, restrictions, and need for social distancing resulting from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have offered many Americans an opportunity to pursue new or neglected aspirations, such as reading all those books that have been piling up, getting in shape, or just spending more quality time at home with family. Certainly, some people have used the shock to the normal rhythm of daily life to reevaluate priorities or spend more time focused on activities that are good for mental and physical health.
But the pandemic might have also triggered—or at least exacerbated—an existential crisis of boredom that could be contributing to ideological extremism and related antisocial behavior. Since March, Gallup has been regularly asking Americans which emotions they experienced on the day before they were surveyed. The number of bored Americans was at a high at the end of March and mid-April, with 47% indicating feeling bored a lot of the previous day. Even in mid- to late-August, when people had more opportunities to be outside, over one-third of Americans (36%) said they experienced boredom a lot during the previous day. Heading into fall and winter, this number could again increase if COVID-19 cases continue to rise and people are stuck at home, socially disconnected, or out of work.
In two other studies, they observed that the more people generally find themselves being bored, the more extreme their political orientation.
Of course, many Americans are also experiencing great amounts of stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic, and there are related economic and social challenges. Compared to these other negative emotional states, boredom might seem like a trivial complaint. However, boredom can cause real problems if not directed towards healthy and constructive behaviors.
Psychologists Wijnand Van Tilburg and Eric Igou offer a unique existential analysis of boredom. They describe boredom as an unpleasant state in which people feel they are not engaged in meaningful activity. Further, they argue that boredom serves a meaning-regulatory function by motivating individuals to seek out opportunities to engage in meaning-providing activities. For instance, a number of their studies find that having people complete very boring tasks increases both feelings of meaninglessness and the desire to find meaning.
Normally, this might sound encouraging. In order to thrive, humans need to perceive their lives as full of meaning. A lack of meaning in life is a major risk factor for poor mental and physical health. Therefore, boredom might push us to get back on a path to meaning. However, studies conducted by Van Tilburg and Igou also find that boredom can increase political extremism.
For instance, in one experiment, after asking participants to indicate whether they identify as liberal or conservative, Van Tilburg and Igou induced boredom among research participants by having half of them transcribe ten references to literature about concrete mixtures (high boredom condition). The other half were only asked to transcribe two of the references (low boredom condition). Following these tasks, all of the participants rated how liberal or conservative they are on a seven-point scale (1 = conservative, 7 = liberal). The researchers observed that participants in the high boredom condition—compared to the low boredom condition—subsequently rated themselves closer to the extreme ends on their side of the political spectrum scale.
In two other studies, they observed that the more people generally find themselves being bored, the more extreme their political orientation. Critically, they observed that this pattern can be attributed to the need for meaning. The more people experience boredom, the more they are looking for meaning, which, in turn, is associated with greater political extremism.
In further studies, these researchers find that boredom makes individuals more tolerant of criminal behavior among people of their own nationality but less tolerant of criminal behavior among people of other nationalities, suggesting that boredom helps drive intergroup bias and conflict. Again, these effects were connected to the need for meaning.
The meaninglessness that boredom creates might also promote the types of destructive behaviors that are associated with ideological extremism, such as rioting. Indeed, research has found that boredom is one major reason teenagers in Northern Ireland participated in rioting. And studies show that boredom increases impulsive behavior as a way to cope with feelings of meaninglessness.
There is good news though. Boredom can be channeled towards the types of behaviors that are needed when society is facing major challenges that require both cooperation and innovation. For instance, studies find that boredom increases the motivation for charitable giving, especially if the charity is presented as one that has proven to be effective at making a meaningful difference in the world. Research has also linked boredom to increased curiosity and exploration. This suggests that boredom can inspire the kinds of innovative thinking and entrepreneurial pursuits required to successfully navigate the current pandemic and restore economic stability and growth.
Humans have a need to perceive their lives as meaningful. If unfulfilled, this need can be directed towards personally and socially harmful behavior in an attempt to fill the existential void. However, it is important to remember that it can also be directed toward aspirations and actions that promote individual and societal flourishing. The challenge going forward is to promote cultural beliefs and public policy that helps all members of society feel meaningfully engaged in their families and communities.
Dr. Clay Routledge is the Challey Professor of Management at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth and the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University. He is also a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute.