The official report on the reasons behind last year’s riots in the UK will be published tomorrow. It concludes that half a million families in the UK aren’t getting the support they need. It also points the finger at poor parenting, and materialism brought on by advertising. But perhaps there is a more basic, scientific and primitive urge that triggered the rioting? One man thinks that boredom may have been the cause. And he’s not the only one – and has some compelling science to back up his claims.
It sounds an outrageous proposition, but the notion that being ‘fed up’ causes rioting is the put forward in a forthcoming documentary by Canadian film producers, Elevator Films (for release May 2012). The documentary, led by director/producer Albert Nerenberg (of ‘Laughology’ fame), explores the idea that widespread boredom across the UK (through unemployment and poor-schooling) was a key factor in the wide-spread looting of otherwise ‘normal’ English men and women. The film travels the globe, interviewing some of the world’s top thinkers on boredom research. They also asked me to give an opinion.
Presumably to intersperse the academics with a somewhat lighter-hearted perspective, they asked me to review the most recent (and soon to be published) research on boredom and to give my (cough) esteemed opinion. Initially highly sceptical, I was surprised to discover how much evidence points toward the mental and physical dangers of a boring life. Being bored for too long, it seems, makes us unhealthy and cause us become quite irrationally…
Fed up? The two types of boredom.
If truth be told, scientific bods knew very little about boredom.
Anxiety – yes. Depression – yes. Anger – yes.
Boredom? Nope, nicht nada.
Among the first to try to answer this question was Yael Goldberg and colleagues from the University of Waterloo. Using a variety of standardised questionnaires and some flashy statistics, they quizzed eight hundred men and women and demonstrated that boredom was measurably distinct from other mental states – such as depression, apathy and anhedonia (the inability to get pleasure from life).
Building on this, Ela Malkovsky (and friends) unravelled that boredom actually comes in two different flavours:
- Apathetic Bored: Wanting to be alone, not wanting to engage and lacking motivation.
- Anxious Bored: Irritable, frustrated, motivated to do things but unable to find anything that satisfies.
So next time you’re waiting for a bus, you might want to consider if you’re becoming apathetic or anxious… (both pieces of research presently awaiting publication)
Is boredom a disease?
Well no – at least not in the conventional sense.
In 2010, Martin Shipley of University College London demonstrated that civil servants who reported being bored were more likely to die younger. It is an interesting association – but surely boredom couldn’t be the cause for an early grave? Or could it?
Colleen Merrifield (also of the University of Waterloo) recently showed that being bored significantly increases the levels of the powerful stress hormone, cortisol in the body. A hormone essential for life and released periodically throughout the day (and at times of stress), cortisol appears get released when you’re bored.
It’s a bit like chocolate cake – a little is good, too much is bad. A bit of cortisol boosts energy, brain performance, and stops you feeling pain. Too much will result in weak muscles and bones, a chubby abdomen, high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure.
If Merrifield’s findings are verified, then it will have dramatic effects on how we view people subjected to a life of tedium – and the potential damage it might do to long-term health.
Did boredom play a part in the London riots?
One compelling implication of this cortisol-boredom discovery is the long term impact it may have on the brain itself. Excess cortisol levels ultimately cause brain shrinkage – specifically a memory retrieval part (the hippocampus). If your hippocampus is shrunk, then (put simply) you can’t think or remember things as well.
The documentary puts forward a strong case to suggest that high levels of unemployment, prolonged time sitting down and an under-stimulating education results in boredom at an endemic level within sections of Western society. They then argue that such institutional boredom may have perpetuated the violence and looting seen in the London riots.
It’s not politically correct to say it, but as journalists who report rioting will admit – riots can be exciting: run-down estates turning into street battles, with fires, explosions and police chases. If (and that’s a big if) anxious boredom does result in impaired brain function and an abnormal desire for thrill-seeking behaviour, then their conclusion is entirely reasonable.
Clearly, there are still a lot of gaps to fill and a fair amount more research is needed to prove or disprove this theory. But one thing’s for sure, I’m definitely going to make sure tomorrow’s lecture a stimulating one for my students….
A full report on my meetings with Albert and his forthcoming documentary will feature in Issue Five of Guru Magazine (free for download from April 2nd 2012).
Thanks for reading – feel free to comment below…
Goldberg, Y., Eastwood, J., LaGuardia, J., & Danckert, J. (2011). Boredom: An Emotional Experience Distinct from Apathy, Anhedonia, or Depression Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30 (6), 647-666 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2011.30.6.647
Lupien, S., de Leon, M., de Santi, S., Convit, A., Tarshish, C., Nair, N., Thakur, M., McEwen, B., Hauger, R., & Meaney, M. (1998). Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits Nature Neuroscience, 1 (1), 69-73 DOI: 10.1038/271
Britton, A., & Shipley, M. (2010). Bored to death? International Journal of Epidemiology, 39 (2), 370-371 DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyp404
Colleen Merrifield, David A. Moscovitch, & James Danckert (in press – pending review) Characterizing the Psychophysiological Signature of Boredom. Consciousness and Cognition
Ela Malkovsky, Colleen Merrifield, Yael Goldberg and James Danckert (2011) Exploring the cognitive correlates of the subjective experience of boredom. (in press)