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In the age of social distancing, boredom can pose a threat to public health


In recent months, journalists and public health experts have been quoting the term “pandemic fatigue”. Although not clearly defined, the general idea is that people get tired of the pandemic and stay apart for almost a year. That fatigue can manifest as feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, anger, and boredom.

Seeing boredom on that list worries those who study the phenomenon. “Usually boredom tells you to do something else,” says sports psychologist Wanja Wolff of the University of Konstanz in Germany. "In the context of a pandemic … it may not be the best."

Recently, those fears have received more traction. Two similar but independent studies, one by Wolff and colleagues and another by an American-Canadian research team, found that people who often feel bored are more likely than others to ignore patterns of social distancing. Those individuals prone to boredom also appear to have a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Boredom, these studies suggest, can pose a real but underestimated threat to public health.

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Defining boredom

Throughout Western humanity, boredom has usually been portrayed as a failing individual. Nineteenth-century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as the feeling of the emptiness of existence. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it "leprosy of the soul."

But researchers studying boredom say it deserves a more neutral reading. That feeling of having nothing to do – what Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “the desire for desires” – serves as a signal, a call to the body to change gears.

“Boredom is a sign that you’re not committed to the world,” says social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida at Gainesville. Researchers, including Westgate, have identified two paths to boredom: loss of focus or loss of meaning.

Certainly, many of us have lost focus or mental acuity from the Before Times, Westgate says. In addition to a deadly pandemic that led to the closure of cities and remote schooling, there were civil rights protests, political unrest, a paralyzing recession, and countless stressors both large and small. Those disturbances, which hinder our ability to keep ourselves mentally sharp, can cause gloom. When boredom is defined in this way, the occupation of, for example, the parents of young children provides little protection against the feeling of blah. In fact, Westgate and others have found that both understimulation and overstimulation can short-circuit attention span.

Meanwhile, many of our lives have fallen apart. Research by personality and social psychologist Samantha Heintzelman of Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey shows that simple routines, such as drinking coffee in the same cafeteria every day or having a couple lunch with a friend, actually permeate life. “We’re now in a routine collective loss,” Heintzelman says. That is, social distancing guidelines intended to protect us from a deadly disease have also robbed the seemingly small things that give meaning to life (SN: 14/08/20).

When people lose focus and meaning in their lives, this form of boredom is “doubly bad,” Westgate says. "You can be bored because something makes sense, but you can't pay attention because it's too easy or too hard. You can also be bored because you can pay attention, but it doesn't make sense," he says. "But if something doesn't make sense and you can't pay attention, you're like a boring double."

Prone to blah

These two new boredom studies, which include nearly 1,000 U.S. participants, show how high levels of boredom may be occurring among those who are prone to feeling during this pandemic.

In the study by the Canadian-American team, researchers tried to quantify the link between a person’s innate propensity to boredom and behaviors that break the rules during the pandemic, such as spending fewer hours apart from others or having a social gathering. The prognosis of boredom in the sample explained 25 percent of the variance in rules-breaking behaviors, the team reports in March’s personality and individual differences. Researchers have not found a strong relationship between breaking the rules and other factors that may influence it, such as age or gender. (Young adults and men tend to score more on boredom than other groups).

No single factor can explain 100 percent of any human behavior, says study co-author and cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert of the University of Waterloo in Canada. But "25 percent is a huge amount."

Meanwhile, Wolff and colleagues, whose findings appeared online July 28 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that people prone to boredom felt that social distancing was more difficult than others and that they were less likely to comply. the guidelines of social distance. Both teams showed that those who scored higher on boredom were also slightly more likely than those who scored lower to report obtaining COVID-19.

“Boredom is an incredibly powerful motivator for behavior,” Wolff says. However, he adds, people can struggle with how to respond to that signal in safe and meaningful ways.

The danger of the tide

Westgate is not surprised that people who are especially prone to boredom, but who are able to distance themselves socially, find their home as a boring mind. However, one wonders for the rest of us: how do people who are not used to being bored face the loss of focus and meaning caused by the pandemic? Are they also breaking the rules?

The research here is less direct but suggestive. In a 2014 study in Science, Westgate and colleagues asked 42 undergraduate students to sit alone with their thoughts for several minutes, without cell phones being allowed. However, students had the option of pressing a button to receive a painful electric shock. Approximately two-thirds of male students and a quarter of students pressed that button, some repeatedly, suggesting that even pain may be preferable to boredom for some (SN: 7/3/14).

Similarly, a study conducted in 2019 on Behavioral Decision Making by social psychologist Wijnand Van Tilburg and colleagues showed that inducing boredom in people through repetitive gambling has led them to make riskier decisions.

See our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Momentary boredom is not inherently bad, says Van Tilburg of the University of Essex in England. But over a longer period of time, boredom can lead to serious public health outcomes if the situation “is unresolved or its resolution is detrimental, such as overeating or becoming aggressive or not wearing a mask,” he says.

A recent study provides clues as to how unresolved boredom may be playing out. Most epidemiological models assume that people will initiate and maintain social distancing as soon as COVID-19 cases begin to rise in an area. This would cause deaths, which are delayed by a few weeks, to increase but plummet in response to social distancing, which would make model predictions of deaths resemble a mountain with a sharp peak.

But researchers who reported on Dec. 22 Minutes from the National Academy of Sciences found, based on Google's COVID-19 mobility reports, that in most U.S. states people initially went down as cases increased in the spring and in the summer, but then they increased their movements before the threat passed. As a result, the true curves of COVID-19 fatalities do not resemble a peak but short plateaus or descents followed by a rapid increase. That is, mortality rates did not fall as expected but remained high. When researchers incorporated that premature resurgence of activity into epidemiological models, the predicted curves better replicated real-life fatality patterns.

The authors attribute people’s actions and the higher-than-expected death toll to pandemic fatigue, which includes boredom.

In the coming months, boredom from pandemic fatigue may intensify. The spread of coronavirus, including new and even more contagious variants (SN: 15/1/21), in the United States and many other places continues to fall out of control. While hope is nearing the launch of vaccines, public health experts warn that vaccinating enough people to stop the spread of the virus in the United States could take us to 2021. What makes that collision of hope and despair with our levels of boredom? ? How many of us will leave the guard?

Now what?

Wolff is now investigating how to help those who experience boredom follow the rules of social distancing. His July work showed that when people prone to boredom show high self-control, they do a better job with adherence. However, it can be difficult to train people to have more self-control, Wolff says. Instead, it suggests that people reduce the need for self-control by creating contingency plans.

His preliminary research, posted online on June 25 on PsyArXiv.com, suggests that such “if-then” plans may help. For example, if an indoor gym is too dangerous, a person might plan to start running outside. Wolff suggests that people take small steps to make it easier to keep track of this routine change, such as putting training clothes on the bed the night before and sneakers by the front door. “The idea is to make the behavior more automatic,” he says.

But even with the best-established plans, maintaining focus and meaning during the pandemic is no easy task. Researchers say it’s worth reminding us that boredom is a neutral sign, neither bad nor good. And some people who sink into this moment and explore that feeling may find that boredom has deeper roots that may be prior to the pandemic.

So perhaps the most optimistic framework for the situation is that some people will use this prolonged moment of boredom to think about bigger life goals, Van Tilburg says. "It's possible to make sense of these negative situations."

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