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Characterizing the psychophysiological signature of boredom

Abstract

Research on the experience and expression of boredom is underdeveloped. The purpose of the present study was to explore the psychophysiological signature of the subjective experience of boredom. Healthy undergraduates (n = 72) viewed previously validated and standardized video clips to induce boredom, sadness, and a neutral affective state, while their heart rate (HR), skin conductance levels (SCL), and cortisol levels were measured. Boredom yielded dynamic psychophysiological responses that differed from the other emotional states. Of particular interest, the physiological signature of boredom relative to sadness was characterized by rising HR, decreased SCL, and increased cortisol levels. This pattern of results suggests that boredom may be associated with both increased arousal and difficulties with sustained attention. These findings may help to resolve divergent conceptualizations of boredom in the extant literature and, ultimately, to enhance our understanding and treatment of clinical syndromes in which self-reported boredom is a prominent symptom.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Canada Research Chair and Discovery Grants to J. D. and NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS)—Masters and Vanier CGS awards to C. M. We would like to thank Dr. David Moscovitch for his assistance with data collection, design and analysis, and comments on earlier drafts of this work.

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Correspondence to James Danckert.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Validating the mood-inducing video clips

Forty-eight individuals (33 female, M age = 21.5, SDage = 4.96; none of whom overlapped with the present study sample) participated in a pilot study whose purpose was to assemble a set of three video clips that would elicit the states of (1) boredom, (2) sadness, and (3) a neutral state similar to participants’ baseline that would serve as mood induction stimuli for the current study. Participants were seated in a comfortable armchair approximately 2 m from the television. After obtaining informed consent, participants were told that they would be viewing three video clips of varying lengths. They then filled out the SA questionnaire to establish their emotional baseline. Following this, the experimenter presented the first video clip, which was either boring or sad (counterbalanced) and was either 171, 233, or 341 s in length (counterbalanced). Immediately after viewing the video, participants again filled out the SA questionnaire to assess what their emotional state had been while watching the preceding video. Next, participants watched the neutral video, which was 233 s in length, following which, they again filled out the SA questionnaire. Following this, participants watched a third video. This video was either boring or sad, depending on which video had been viewed first. The third video was either 171, 233, or 341 s in length and matched the length of the first video so that time was constant within subjects (i.e., if the first video was 171 s in length, so too was the third video). Immediately after the video, participants filled out the SA questionnaire one last time. Each participant watched three video clips during a single laboratory session ranging from 20 to 60 min. The order in which the emotion-eliciting videos (the sad and boring videos) were presented was counterbalanced, while the neutral video was always shown in between the emotionally arousing videos. Each participant watched only one length of sad/boring video clip. In other words, the length of the video clip was administered as a between-subjects variable (Tables 4, 5).

Table 4 Pilot study—means (SD) of top three emotion terms endorsed on SA questionnaire
Table 5 Pilot study—means (SD) of target emotions endorsed on SA questionnaire

Appendix 2: State emotion evaluations used in the study

State affect questionnaire [post film version]

The following questions refer to how you feel right now [felt while watching the previous film].

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Merrifield, C., Danckert, J. Characterizing the psychophysiological signature of boredom. Exp Brain Res 232, 481–491 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-013-3755-2

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Keywords

  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Heart rate
  • Skin conductance levels
  • Attention