The yawning ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans has been growing to the point that political polarization has been called “the defining feature of early 21st century American politics.” In fact, there is an extremist narrative almost anywhere you look — in the U.S. presidential campaign and Donald Trump, in the Brexit referendum, and in the rise of the self-described Islamic State and radicalized youth.
More than ever before, it seems that people tend to insist ever-so-strongly on their own points of view, argue them inexhaustibly, and push back on the views of others. It’s almost as if they have nothing better to do.
And that might be actually the case. Feeling bored, scientists say, can exaggerate our political leanings. Research on the psychological consequences of boredom — an emotion present almost every day and yet so poorly understood — suggests this frustrating state of mind leads to a desire to find meaning in life. And in the course of this existential quest, we may end up becoming more entrenched in our political orientations.
Are you a liberal? It’s possible you’ll be even more so after you’re forced to view all 200 photos of your friend’s latest beach trip. Has your crazy uncle recently become more racist than Trump himself? Perhaps consider getting him a Netflix account.
Of course, it would be too simplistic to reduce the complex and dynamic question of political extremism across cultures and countries to a single emotion. But three experiments recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology provide intriguing evidence that boredom plays its own part, however big or small, in the shaping of our political minds.
“One of the things boredom does is that it essentially wakes up people to the realization that what they are doing at the moment is utterly purposeless,” said Wijnand van Tilburg, a researcher from King’s College London who co-authored the new study. “And expressing political ideas or being connected to a particular political group is one way in which people gain a sense of purpose.”
What Boredom Has To Do With Political Orientation
To test the possible link between boredom and political extremism, van Tilburg and his colleague, Eric Igou of the University of Limerick in Ireland, recruited 97 university students. The participants first indicated whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative, then were randomly assigned to a high boredom or low boredom group.
Those in the low boredom group had to copy two passages from a book about mixing concrete, whereas the unfortunate participants in the high boredom group had to copy 10 such passages.
After the participants completed the tasks, the researchers asked them to describe their political orientation on a 7-point scale, 1 indicating very liberal or left-wing, and 7 indicating very conservative or right-wing.
The liberals in the high boredom group rated their their political orientation more extremely than liberals in the low boredom group, the researchers found. A similar trend emerged for conservative participants (but it wasn’t statistically significant, likely because there were only 26 people in this group, the researchers said).
A second study with a larger group of people replicated these findings. The researchers conducted a survey of 859 individuals and found that both self-described conservatives and self-described liberals were more likely to endorse more extreme political views if their responses to the survey suggested they were also especially prone to boredom.
Admittedly, a scale of 1 to 7 is a rough way to evaluate someone’s political ideology, van Tilburg said. But participants’ responses in both experiments, even on this rough scale, suggest that boredom pushes people toward more radical beliefs.
The Benefits Of Boredom
From Arthur Schopenhauer, who viewed boredom as direct proof of meaningless of existence, to Bertrand Russell, who believed learning to endure boredom is essential to a happy life, researchers and philosophers have tried to understand this odd state of mind. What is it for? Does it serve a purpose like other feelings, such as pain, fear and anger?
“Boredom has quite a few features,” van Tilburg said. “Usually in the literature though, boredom is described as something unpleasant and negative.”
Studies show that long-term boredom is linked to depression, anxiety, unhealthy eating, gambling, and all kinds of undesirable things. People would do literally anything, including electrically shocking themselves, to escape boredom.
But boredom is an everyday life experience, and typically these kinds of experiences have some kind of psychological function, van Tilburg said.
“People get angry because it helps them get to their goals, people get frightened because they want to avoid threat. So these unpleasant emotions serve a purpose.”
In earlier work, van Tilburg found that one of the things that makes boredom distinct from other negative emotions is that it’s uniquely associated with a strong desire to engage in more meaningful behavior. The function of boredom is to make people aware that their current behaviors are not rewarding enough and as a result of this, people start exploring, looking for more challenging and more creative behaviors.
One of the things that makes boredom distinct from other negative emotions is that it’s uniquely associated with a strong desire to engage in more meaningful behavior.
“It’s not pleasant, and it can have bad consequences if it’s long-term. But at its core, it’s not a dysfunctional emotion; it serves a psychological purpose,” van Tilburg said.
Van Tilburg and Igou tested this idea in a third survey of 300 people, this time also measuring participants’ desire to engage in meaningful activity and search for meaning. They found their hypothesis to be true: More extreme political ideology and boredom seemed to be especially linked for respondents who said they were searching for meaning.
Does Boredom Help Explain Political Radicalization?
There is a big difference between endorsing very conservative or very liberal views and becoming radicalized enough to flee one’s homeland to join ISIS. But the new findings do raise an intriguing question: What role does boredom play in some young Westerners’ decision to join radical groups thousands of miles away from home?
The idea that ISIS might use youth boredom as a recruiting strategy has been brought up before. Despite a common belief that converted militants are rebelling against economic injustice, they sometimes have rather privileged backgrounds, as the terrorists behind the attacks in Paris and Dhaka reportedly did. The common denominator for these recruits was their youth, wealth and education. Boredom and an overwhelming desire to find a sense of purpose is arguably more likely to affect that demographic.
Earlier research suggests that boredom is also linked to hostility toward outsiders, leading people to commit more strongly to their groups and to see other groups more negatively. “They treat people outside their group worse, they discriminate against others,” van Tilburg said. It’s possible that these people feel they are doing something valuable ― say, defending their own world view against that of outsiders.
On another level, we might just be bored as a society.
Although one theory is that technological advances in the last decade have left no space for boredom, that constant stimulation by novel things could also make everything lose its specialness, rendering life boring and dull.
“The issue is that the research on boredom is so young that we actually don’t know what’s going on,” van Tilburg said. “As far as I know, there have been no studies that look at changes in boredom over time or cross-cultural differences.”
While it’s possible that boredom plays a role in widespread political polarization of many kinds, it is still only one variable in the great complexity of human life, van Tilburg said. Many other factors contribute to social and political trends. Social media is one example.
And boredom also has positive consequences. As many have suspected and research has shown, it leads to creativity, a more active way of creating new meaning, Tilburg said.
Whether boredom is really good or bad depends on the context ― and what you do with it.