How to Not Be Boring, According to a Psychologist Who Researches Boredom

He’s also come up with a list of jobs considered the most boring by people. Is yours on it?

There’s a reason “Bored In The House” evolved into the most relatable earworm back in the 2020 lockdown. If there’s one thing we avoid like the virus, it’s feeling bored. And worse still? Being boring to others.

Boredom is the state of feeling unhappy or dissatisfied because of a lack of interest or having nothing to do. While most of us endlessly drone about how boring it is to do mundane everyday tasks – from filling crucial paperwork, to braving traffic jams, to waiting for someone who is late – there are also researchers who study the legit science behind boredom. 

Experimental social psychologist Wijnand Van Tilburg is one of them.

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For the last 15 years, Tilburg has been thoroughly researching boredom to truly understand its consequences. And it turns out, it’s pretty interesting. 

“I got interested in studying boredom during my undergrad degree,” Tilburg told VICE over a video call. “My collaborator Eric Igou and I noticed that people trivialise boredom as if it’s inconsequential. We got curious about what it is about boredom that people dislike, and what it actually does to us. When we looked at the literature, we found there was very little research seriously trying to examine what boredom does to us.” 

As a result, Igou and Tilburg took on a series of experiment-led studies that induced situations of boredom to see how it impacted their subjects. Many of their experiments involved assigning tasks that were, well, boring. Like, asking participants to copy bibliography references (the detailed list of references cited in research papers) onto another document, giving them nonsensical puzzles they couldn’t complete, and asking them to draw never-ending circles. 

“What we found is that boredom did have negative consequences, in that people became more negative towards outsiders because it makes them feel better about their own group, and is also associated with aggression,” said Tilburg. “But, we found that boredom ultimately stirs a psychological purpose and pushes people to search for new things they would find meaningful or valuable, which is a positive outcome as well.” 

Tilburg added that the research also indicated that feelings of boredom typically led to feelings of nostalgia, with people finding a sense of comfort or interest in reminiscing about the past. 

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Once Tilburg had narrowed down on the emotional reactions people exhibited when in a state of boredom, he realised there wasn’t enough recent research to examine the consequences of boredom on interpersonal relations. So, he set out to pinpoint the exact personalities, hobbies and traits that could stereotype a person as boring. 

In a study titled Boring People: Stereotype Characteristics, Interpersonal Attributions, and Social Reactions, Tilburg led a group of researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the stereotypical features that lead to a person being perceived as boring by others. 

While research focused on the characteristics people equate with boring relationships or people, this study tried to identify the interpersonal challenges that people with stereotypically boring personal characteristics faced, and whether it impacted the way they were treated in society.

To conduct this study, Tilburg and his team, which included Igou and Mehr Panwani, asked more than 500 people across five different experiments about the careers and hobbies they felt were the most “boring.” They then asked them to list the characteristics they associated with people in these jobs.  

Unsurprisingly, volunteers classified data analysis, accounting, tax/insurance, cleaning, and banking as the five most boring jobs. What was more surprising was that the list of the most boring hobbies included sleeping (You snooze, you lose), religion (Praying for a miracle?), watching TV (Wait, what?), observing animals (Like your average bed and breakfast bird watcher), and doing math (That actually does add up). 

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Participants also said that the attributes that made a person stereotypically boring were having no interests, no sense of humour, no opinions, or complaining too much. 

However, the findings that surprised Tilburg and his team the most were that people who had stereotypically boring characteristics were then more likely to be automatically perceived as incomptent and cold. The study also found that those stereotyped were socially avoided, with people also agreeing that they would have to be paid just to hang out with them. These results suggested that getting stereotyped as a bore could come with negative interpersonal consequences.

“We found there’s not only a negative reaction to people [considered stereotypically boring], but there are also doubts around how good their abilities are, even though someone like an accountant, which can be a stereotypically boring job, would nonetheless be seen as highly competent due to their occupation.”

Another finding that shocked Tilburg was that the act of smoking was seen as boring. “When I grew up, it was marketed as the cool thing to do. Now, not so much,” he said. 

Tilburg cautioned that the small sample size of 500 people for this study meant that the findings could not be considered final and conclusive. However, this is a good first peek into the many ways people could not come across as dull. 

“While people found things like data analysis and math boring, they found scientists exciting, even though a large part of what a scientist does is data analysis,” he said. “So, the way a person describes themselves and what they do could help people see them as less stereotypically boring.” 

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So, if what you do falls in the list of jobs considered boring, it might help you to package your job description better when talking to others. Maybe tell them how you love to steep yourself in modern culture and analyse how it’s changing our lives, instead of saying that “watching TV” is your numero uno hobby. 

He also pointed out that people considered boring were either seen as talking too much or too little. “Again, it’s important to strike a balance between the two, put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re talking to and make sure they’re also enjoying the conversation.” 

Through his research, Tilburg also found that people in more creative professions, such as performing arts or journalism, were seen as less boring. However, he warned, it was not only the responsibility of the person stereotyped as boring to change that perception. 

“In the end, I think it’s easy to suggest what stereotypically boring people should do to correct their image, but it’s equally important to make people aware that they have to be open-minded and give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Ultimately, this research is always about the stereotypes, and should someone find themselves in one of the stereotypes, it’s not necessarily wrong. People often ask if it is good or bad to feel bored, but in the end, you have to be able to deal with boredom because it’s something that will always occur in life.” 

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Tagged:

research, psychology, boredom, hobbies, boring

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