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On boredom: Lack of challenge and meaning as distinct boredom experiences

Abstract

Boredom is a common experience that affects people on multiple levels, including their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions. Not much research, however, has examined what makes the experience of boredom distinct from other affective experiences. Based on earlier research on boredom and our meaning-regulation framework, we conducted a series of four studies that demonstrate the distinct experiential content of boredom. More than other negative affective experiences (sadness, anger, and frustration), boredom makes people feel unchallenged while they think that the situation and their actions are meaningless (Study 1). The distinct experiential content of boredom is associated with boredom proneness (Study 2) and with state boredom experiences (Study 3). In addition, the distinct experiential content of boredom is affected by contextual features (Study 4). This series of studies provides a systematic understanding of what people feel, think, and want to do when bored, distinctive from other negative experiences.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Following Roseman et al. (1994), the term ‘emotivational goal’ refers to motivational components that are specifically related to emotions.

  2. 2.

    For the items that did not work in their original research (e.g., actions of frustration) we developed items in order to have an equal amount of items for each emotion. Details can be provided on request.

  3. 3.

    No adjustments to the α-level were made because we made explicit predictions for each of the comparisons. Specifically, we predicted that participants would give higher ratings for the ten boredom items in the boredom condition relative to participants in the sadness, anger, or frustration conditions. Similarly, Roseman et al. (1994), whose approach served as basis for our Study 1, explain why adjustments would not be adequate (p. 208). However, to rule out any concerns in this regard, we checked the data after making Bonferroni corrections to the α-level. First of all, we correcting for the total amount of 12 ANOVAs by adopting an α-level of .004. Importantly, the critical ANOVAs associated with the seven distinct items, the ANOVA on the entire boredom content, and also the ANOVA on the composite of the distinct boredom content remained significant (all ps ≤ .002). We also examined the specific comparisons after adopting an α-level of .008, correcting for the 6 specific comparisons after each of the ANOVA’s. Importantly, people’s scores in the boredom condition were still significantly higher compared to those in the other conditions for each of the seven distinct boredom items, the entire boredom content, and also the composite of boredom’s distinct content (all ps ≤ .007).

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that the identified category frequencies were too small for testing the statistical reliability of these differences.

  5. 5.

    The sample size was relatively small compared to the other studies. Please note, however, that the study contained only two conditions and that the effect sizes of the predicted significant main effects are considerable (.13 ≤ all η2s ≤ .19). Moreover, sample sizes such as those in Study 4 are quite common is social psychology experiments that are part of a series of studies (e.g., Twenge et al. 2007, p. 57).

  6. 6.

    Correlation analyses indicated that state boredom was significantly correlated with anger, r = .47, p < .01, and frustration, r = .64, p < .001, not with sadness, r = .19, p = .27. Moreover, anger significantly correlated with sadness, r = .61, p < .001, and frustration, r = .76, and also sadness and frustration were significantly correlated, r = .47, p < .01. These correlations are consistent with the general notice that the four experiences share elements and these correlations further subscribe to the importance of identifying how these emotional states can be distinguished from each other, as done in our research. Importantly, our manipulation affected boredom in particular and did not significantly alter levels of sadness, anger, and frustration.

  7. 7.

    The mediation analysis procedure by Preacher and Hayes (2008) does not include β-coefficients in the output. We have therefore estimated the Beta’s by performing the same mediation analyses after standardizing the involved variables.

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Acknowledgments

This research was in part funded by a PhD scholarship grant from the Irish Research Council for the Social Sciences and Humanities (IRCHSS). We want to thank Marcel Zeelenberg for his encouraging remarks on our undertaking, the members of the Social Cognition and Decision Making Lab for their constructive comments on our research, and Annemieke J. M. van den Tol for her assistance in data collection. In addition, we would also like to thank Timothy D. Ritchie for his feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg.

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van Tilburg, W.A.P., Igou, E.R. On boredom: Lack of challenge and meaning as distinct boredom experiences. Motiv Emot 36, 181–194 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-011-9234-9

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Keywords

  • Boredom
  • Challenge
  • Meaning
  • Emotion