Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. It’s been about a year since the pandemic took over our lives. For many of us, that has meant a year of broken routines, missed opportunities, and, let’s face it, boredom. So this week, we’ve decided to play for you an episode from our archive that unpacks the science of boredom. It features an early appearance from someone who may now be familiar to you: Angela Duckworth, co-host of our spinoff podcast No Stupid Questions. This episode is called “Am I Boring You?”
Researchers are trying to figure out who gets bored — and why — and what it means for ourselves and the economy. But maybe there’s an upside to boredom? About a hundred years ago — around the time of the First World War — there was a growing concern in Britain about working conditions in factories, mines, and elsewhere. Here’s how the historian Anthony Wohl described working conditions during the Victorian era: “For industrial workers, the working day meant early starts, long hours, and often physically demanding labor in conditions that would’ve challenged even the strongest constitutions. To start work at 6 a.m., perhaps after walking through sleet or rain, and to continue at it all day in over-heated, draughty, or ill-ventilated workrooms meant for many a slow process of physical decline or a life lived continuously on the brink of exhaustion.”
This exhaustion was worrisome for the workers, of course, but also for their employers — and for Britain. Because exhaustion presumably meant lower productivity and — well, nobody wanted that.
Amanda MARKEY: So, Britain forms the Industrial Fatigue Research Board.
Stephen DUBNER: That is so British.
MARKEY: Yeah, right? It’s soon after the war, and even in its name you can see the focus is really on fatigue. They’re trying to figure out the limitations of assembly-line production workers and kind of early on, they think fatigue is the main limitation.
That’s Amanda Markey. We’ll meet her more formally in a bit. The Industrial Fatigue Research Board, she tells us, hired a psychologist named Stanley Wyatt.
MARKEY: And for him, he actually starts by looking at how differences in temperature affect productivity.
Wyatt didn’t find much there, in the temperature idea. So he started talking with assembly-line workers about the repetitive tasks they did all day.
MARKEY: He finds that it’s really not fatigue that’s the limiting factor of production. It’s boredom.
Up to that point, Markey says, the causes and consequences of boredom had not really been studied — what effect it might have, for instance, on the economy.
MARKEY: The word boredom actually does not even start occurring in the English language until the 18th century. It’s pretty late on the scene.
DUBNER: You’re kidding. Really?
MARKEY: No. And once it comes into the language, it kind of quickly takes off. And it comes with the rise of industrialization and also with the rise of leisure time. So there’s kind of like a burst of research at the very beginning on assembly-line workers looking at boredom. But then funding dries up and, unsurprising, so does the research.
Amanda Markey is so interested in boredom that she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in economics, on the topic.
MARKEY: There were still a lot of gaps in the literature.
So on this episode of Freakonomics Radio:
VOICES: Boredom. Boredom? Boredom. The concept of boredom.
Is boredom somehow an economic concept?
MARKEY: Boredom is a way to signal that you’re mismanaging scarce resources. And of course scarcity is just at the foundation of economics.
Is there perhaps an upside to boredom?
Angela DUCKWORTH: Boredom is useful. Because you don’t want an organism who just does the same thing over and over again without learning anything.
And if I ask you to just sit there for a while and do nothing but think — will you get bored? And what will you do to alleviate that boredom?
Dan GILBERT: An astounding percentage of people hate sitting there thinking so much that they’ll start shocking themselves.
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Amanda Markey did not mean to get bit by the boredom bug.
MARKEY: This is kind of embarrassing as a boredom researcher, but I’m hardly ever bored.
While studying behavioral economics at Carnegie Mellon University, Markey was looking around for a research topic.
MARKEY: And our professor, George Loewenstein, was listing a series of topics he felt like had not gotten enough attention.
Things like privacy; the way some people collect expertise about something like wine the way other people collect physical goods; and also: boredom.
MARKEY: And the more I looked into it, the more I found it was really fertile ground.
These days, Amanda Markey makes her living as an algebra teacher in New York City — which, depending on how you feel about algebra, makes her an automatic boredom expert. In any case, the fact is that psychologists have yet to really land on a clear, universally accepted definition of boredom, and what causes it. Is it a lack of novelty? The absence of meaningful engagement? Or maybe it’s a somewhat useful dormant state? But here’s what experts do know about boredom:
MARKEY: Well, okay, there’re two types of boredom. There’re trait boredom and state boredom.
“State boredom” is being bored in the moment. As in: this movie is boring. This party is boring. (This podcast is boring? Please, God, no.) And then there’s “trait boredom.”
MARKEY: Trait boredom is the question of, “are you the type of person who is likely to experience boredom?”
That is, are you someone who is routinely bored no matter what you’re doing? Again, Markey points out that boredom research is not all that far along. But earlier studies have at least shown that boredom is associated with a lot of negative things.
MARKEY: Boredom is associated with depression. It’s associated with loneliness, gambling, drinking, dropping out of school.
Now, saying that boredom is associated with those things does not tell us if boredom causes them. It could be that loneliness is boring, that depression is boring, that you get bored once you drop out of school. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that people really can not stand to be bored.
DUBNER: Hi, Dan Gilbert?
GILBERT: Dan Gilbert here. Stephen?
Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychology professor. He mentioned some research he had conducted on the “disengaged mind.”
Here’s what Gilbert and Wilson wanted to know: When people find themselves with nothing to do but think — to entertain themselves with their own thoughts — is that a pleasant experience? To find out, the researchers recruited 55 undergrads, male and female. They put them in an unadorned room, one at a time, and exposed them to a variety of positive and negative stimuli. A recording of guitar music, for example. A color photograph of a cockroach. And a mild — but still quite painful — electric shock.
The participants were then told to imagine they had been given $5. Then they were asked whether they would pay some of that money to not receive the shock again. The vast majority of them — 42 of the 55 students — said they would pay to not be shocked. And then, Dan Gilbert says, each of those 42 students was left alone, by themselves, in this unadorned room.
GILBERT: And you tell them that their job is just to think.
But if they wanted to — at any point — they could shock themselves again.
GILBERT: And it turns out that an astounding percentage of people hate sitting there thinking so much that they’ll start shocking themselves.
One participant shocked himself 190 times. In 15 minutes. Granted, this was a very small and narrow experiment. But let’s assume we take its findings at face value: that having nothing to do but think is so unpleasant that some people would rather inflict pain on themselves to relieve their — well, this is another assumption, but let’s say it — to relieve their boredom. If that’s the case — I know, “if, if, if,” but remember it’s still early days in boredom research — if that’s the case, Amanda Markey wondered, why have humans evolved with this peculiar emotion?
MARKEY: Most emotions in the world tell you, “Direct your attention to something.” Even if it’s something negative, right? Even, like, disgust says, “This is really important. Direct your attention.” Boredom is really one of the few, and maybe even the only emotion that says, “This is not a good use of your time. Direct your attention to something else. Like, get out of this situation.”
Markey and her professor, George Loewenstein, wondered if economics might have some explanation for why we get bored. They came up with what Loewenstein calls the “scarce-capacity” theory of boredom.
MARKEY: So you have mental resources, they’re scarce and they’re really important and valuable, and boredom develops as this signal that mental resources are not being used wisely, they’re not being used on valuable pursuits. And a lot of this was based on — I think you spoke with Angela Duckworth.
We did speak with Angela Duckworth. She’s a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on education. Duckworth used to be, like Amanda Markey is now, a schoolteacher.
Angela DUCKWORTH: I taught math, yeah.
Duckworth and some colleagues created a model for thinking about emotions that might help explain boredom.
DUCKWORTH: If you ask a simple question, why we have emotions, the answer seems to be that evolution gave us emotions for survival. So, fear is useful. Anxiety is useful. And even boredom is useful, because you don’t want an organism who just does the same thing over and over again without learning anything. It would be good to equip that organism with an emotion, an urge to move on when they don’t think that they’re learning anything new.
The argument is that we are constantly doing a sort of cost-benefit analysis of how to spend our mental energy. Consider a student, in the classroom, bored:
DUCKWORTH: My guess about boredom is that the thought that goes through a kid’s head, whether it be conscious or not, is the idea that, “I am not learning anything right n’ that I care about.” And so, I think actually kids are in a way little economists who are weighing the costs and benefits of what they’re doing and when the calculus seems to favor not paying attention to what the teacher is saying or not doing their homework, then that’s what they do. I think in a way they’re very rational.
MARKEY: The premise of that theory is that boredom is a way to signal that you’re mismanaging scarce resources.
That’s Amanda Markey again.
MARKEY: And of course scarcity is the foundation of economics. They actually also say that how you judge the value of what you’re doing is not only based on what you’re doing, but it’s also based on opportunity cost.
As in, there are other — more interesting, more valuable — things I could be doing with my time. Markey and her colleagues wanted to test this “scarce-capacity” theory. First, they needed a reliable way to induce boredom in the laboratory.
MARKEY: So our first challenge was just having something to give to lab participants in order to make them bored.
In earlier boredom studies, Markey says, researchers came up with makeshift ways to bore the participants. You would have to write the same two letters of the alphabet over and over, watch a video of people doing their laundry:
MARKEY: And none had really been validated to ensure that they actually do induce boredom and also — really importantly — don’t induce other emotions, because you don’t want a task that induces both boredom and anger.
So Markey and her fellow researchers came up with a series of boring-seeming tasks and began testing them to find the boringest of the boring.
MARKEY: Which was fun because everyone has an opinion on the most boring situation. And one guy at the lab meeting said the worst job he ever had was working at a bank and having to match signatures. And he said it was just the worst job because they always matched. So we did a signature-matching task based off of his experience.
DUBNER: I’ve to say, when I tried your signature-matching task. I got so bored that I stopped.
Markey and her team even produced their own boring video.
VIDEO: I’ve been asked to tell you about my day yesterday.
They hired an actor to play the part of an office worker who sells card stock.
VIDEO: I guess it’s important to let you know that I work for a company that orders office supplies for other companies.
MARKEY: It was a pretty low-budget production, but he talks about his day and what he had for breakfast and how card stock prices are controlled by the weather—.
DUBNER: Oh, really? See, I’m super interested in that somehow. Card-stock prices are controlled by the weather because of tree growth or something or pulping or manufacture?
MARKEY: You know, I don’t think we did any homework whatsoever to look at the validity. And then we thought maybe the video would be too interesting because you would’ve this person to look at. So we also did an audio version to see if radio was particularly boring.
DUBNER: And which induced more boredom, the video of the card-stock script or the audio of the card-stock script?
MARKEY: You know what? Slightly more for the video, but not significantly different.
DUBNER: But audio is slightly less boring than video you are saying?
MARKEY: I am saying that.
DUBNER: This is good news for those of us who make audio. You realize the ammunition you are giving us here. You realize how I can exploit this and blow it out of all proportion.
MARKEY: Do you want me to repeat it?
DUBNER: Sure, with an exclamation point, absolutely.
After each task, the participants were asked questions to judge their level of boredom. For instance: “Did it seem like time was passing slower than usual?” And, “Did you feel bored?” Under this system, one task emerged as the most boring of all.
MARKEY: Okay, so the most boring task that we came up with is turning pegs or turning cogs.
This task was borrowed from an old experiment that asked lab subjects to turn little wooden pegs. Markey and her colleagues modified the task for a computer.
MARKEY: So, specifically, what we had participants do is, there were eight circles on a screen and every time they would click, it would rotate it a quarter turn. So they would rotate the first peg and then they would move to the second peg and once they finished the eight pegs, they would start all over again.
Participants turn the pegs. The screen resets. Repeat.
MARKEY: So it has this kind of Sisyphean element.
Now that they had a quantifiably reliable way to make people bored, Markey and Loewenstein could test the “scarce-capacity” theory of boredom. If boredom is a signal that a task is not worth doing, what if they made the task a bit more worthwhile? One obvious way was to use money.
MARKEY: We paid people a piece rate in terms of how many pegs they’re turning.
The stakes, we should say, were tiny. The researchers randomly split the participants in half. One group would earn just a half cent per peg turned; and the other got two-and-a-half cents. The most anyone could earn was $8. But people had to turn the pegs for several hours. They click. They turn. Screen resets. They click and turn some more.
MARKEY: And when you pay people more, sure enough, their level of boredom goes down. So that was one manipulation that we figured was very straightforward but surprisingly had not been done before.
Another intervention was to make the task more challenging.
MARKEY: So we made the pegs a lot smaller and they kind of darted around so you had to chase them.
DUBNER: Yeah, you had me at “dart around.” Now it sounds like a game instead of a task somehow.
MARKEY: Yeah, so we tried to gamify it a little bit. So, that effectively reduces boredom.
Now the researchers wanted to look at people’s boredom levels when they thought they were being watched.
MARKEY: We told them that they were going to be monitored. This was a lie. They weren’t monitored in any way. But—.
DUBNER: You guys are mean.
MARKEY: Oh, yeah. We told them, “You are going to be monitored by different judges. They’re going to watch your performance for about 10 seconds and then they’re going to give you a rating.” So, we found that reduced boredom. But we also did a manipulation check, because we wanted to see, “Did you really think that someone was watching you?” So we asked them at the very end of the study, and we said, “You know, you got these ratings. Do you think there was a real person observing you?” And the vast majority of our sample said, “No.” And yet we still see a reduction in boredom.
MARKEY: Yeah, it’s really interesting. To address this we thought, well, maybe we’ll just give them objective feedback. So we made a little chart in the corner and every five seconds it would update in real time. And this did reflect how many pegs were turning and you kind of saw this line creeping up, or it would flatten out if you stopped. And we found that was really effective at reducing boredom as well.
But as Markey and her colleagues ran more experiments, there were things they expected to find — things that should prove the scarce-capacity theory — that they did not find. In one manipulation, for instance, they thought they could make the peg-turning task less boring by telling participants that there was an altruistic angle.
MARKEY: I really wanted this to work and I tried it numerous times and I just could not get it to work. So at first we just told people, “We want to study assembly-line workers, and your work will really help us better understand and make conditions better for assembly line workers.” No effect. And that was all just verbal. Then we said, “We want to help children with A.D.H.D.” And we had a picture of a child on the screen and said, “Your work on this task is just going to really help us better understand A.D.H.D. and attention.” And we were really hoping that these altruistic interventions of helping other people would make a difference. And you know what, it just did not.
Then the researchers tried to add some opportunity cost to the boring task. Subjects sitting at the computer were instructed to open their e-mail program in a second tab. And then the researchers sent the subjects an e-mail.
MARKEY: And we were hoping what this would do is it would make the task more boring because you kind of have this other thing tugging at your mind. And we didn’t find that it made it more boring.
Which left them puzzled. According to the scarce-capacity theory, adding something more interesting to do should make the task even less engaging. On the other hand, adding the altruism should make the task more engaging, or less boring. This all makes George Loewenstein wonder if his scarce-capacity theory really does help explain boredom. It might, he told us. It’s just that he and his colleagues have not been able to prove it yet.
* * *
By the way, if you want to try all the boring tasks Markey and her colleagues tested, you can find them here.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: the relationship between happiness, sex, and boredom and whether retirement leads to boredom. But first, we hear what you, Freakonomics Radio listeners, have to say about boredom.
Margaret HOLLER: Hello, Freakonomics Radio. My name is Margaret. I’m 20 years old and I’m from Boston, Massachusetts.
Ted SCHMITZ: My name is Ted Schmitz. I’m 27. I’m a valet in Arizona.
HOLLER: I really feel like I never really have time to be bored.
SCHMITZ: But in place of that I’ve seen like a huge increase in anxiety or depression.
HOLLER: So what actually happens is if I find a time when I’m bored I have this panic attack. I don’t know what to do with myself.
Barbara TOURTELOT: I’m 65 years old and I suspect you’re not going to find many people my age who are bored.
SCHMITZ: I really just want to be okay with being bored again.
TOURTELOT: The older you get the less bored you’re because time just goes away.
SABRINA: Hi, my name is Sabrina. I’m bored because I’m lazy.
AMBER: I don’t even understand the concept of boredom anymore as an adult.
TOURTELOT: I think the bored people will be the young ones.
SABRINA: I live in Bozeman, Montana, and I am 11 years old.
Ryan DEPAULO: Hi Freakonomics. My name is Ryan. I’m 28, I live in New York City.
AMBER: If I ever felt bored I would probably just jump for joy.
DEPAULO: I’ve come to realize now I’ve three years sober — which I only mention because I used to think that in part I was getting high and drinking because I was bored. But in sobriety I’ve come to see (and in part this is growing up) — that boredom is a B.S. cover-up word for loneliness. There’s no such thing as boredom.
Satchel ATCHEL RAYE: You asked about boredom. I’m coming off of a long spell. I have a restaurant and it’s in the middle of Florida, but my family moves to the beach every summer. And when I’m at the beach, I’m just bored out of my mind. Like, all you can do is sit at the beach or swim at the beach, play with the kids a little bit. And I feel terrible because I know that I should be happy that I have a beach house and I’m at the beach all summer. But it gets really, really boring. And I’m not going to do it again. Next year, I’m going to come up with a plan. I don’t know what that plan’s going to be. But I’m going to have some sort of plan where I’m not bored all summer out of my mind with nothing to do. My name is Satchel and I’m 47 years old.
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What makes you bored? One way to answer that question is to ask a different question, for which there’re better data: what makes you happy — and unhappy? Presumably, the stuff that makes us unhappy might also make us bored. Dan Gilbert, the psychologist who likes to give his research subjects electric shocks, has done a lot of happiness research. He and his colleague Matt Killingsworth looked at data from more than 2,000 adults who said how happy they were during certain activities.
GILBERT: When you look at what people are doing and how they’re thinking and how they’re feeling as they go about living their everyday, normal lives, you find that people are obviously very happy when they’re doing things like eating or having sex. They’re not very happy when they’re doing things like working or commuting.
And what about when they’re just resting, like Satchel Raye hanging out on the beach in Florida?
GILBERT: The answer is about as unhappy as when they’re working or commuting.
But if you ask people what they see themselves doing when they retire, most of them talk about some version of rest.
GILBERT: Rest is the wrong answer. And we even know why from these data. When people rest, their minds wander. And when the mind wanders, it does not usually go to a happy place. People who’re engaged in an activity are almost always happier than people who are not. So any retirement you plan that doesn’t have you engaged in activities is probably not one that’s going to make you happy.
Uh-oh. Does this mean we need to rethink retirement too?
Robert WILLIS: I’m kind of in a staged retirement and will be playing a little bit more golf, I think, than I have.
WILLIS: Which is a very large longitudinal study that’s designed to follow people and their spouses from the time they enter the study in their early 50s until they die. And it collects data on a wide range of economic, health, psychological, family and other kinds of variables.
The H.R.S. is nationally representative, with data on roughly 20,000 people so far, and it’s conducted in a way that allows researchers to measure the impact of retirement at different ages. The H.R.S. is also the model for similar studies in many other countries — which makes for good international comparisons.
WILLIS: And the intent all the way along was to kind of ensure the data sets were as close as possible.
If you look at international retirement ages in the late 1950s, Willis says, you won’t notice much variance.
WILLIS: The labor force participation rates of older men were very similar, across all of the European countries and the United States, Japan, so forth.
We are talking here about men aged 60 to 65. But fast-forward to the 1990s, and now there was a big split.
WILLIS: So that in Japan, labor force participation had remained really quite high. In the U.S., participation had fallen some but not dramatically. But in some countries — I guess most notably the Netherlands and Belgium — male participation rates at those ages had fallen from something on the order of about 70 percent in the early period down to about 20 percent by the mid-1990s.
The difference was almost entirely accounted for not by individuals’ choices about when to retire, but retirement policies.
WILLIS: The U.S. has a relatively neutral system of taxes and pensions and the like in terms of how long people work. So, for example the Social Security payments that you receive are higher if you delay retirement than if you retire as early as you can, and France, on the other hand, has a lot of strong incentives to retire early — and people in fact do retire quite a bit earlier than in the United States.
For a researcher, these differences create a sort of natural experiment that can be used to help understand how early retirement affects people. And that’s exactly what Robert Willis and a colleague, the economist Susann Rohwedder decided to do. They wanted to learn about the relationship between retirement and mental cognition. Their instrument of choice was a memory test.
WILLIS: A test that asks people to listen to a variety of very simple words.
This is an exercise that’s already built into those big, longitudinal retirement studies.
WILLIS: Words like bird and tree.
Lake, army, car.
And in Italy, France or Germany?
WILLIS: There’re of course words in Italian or French or German. But the psychometric techniques have been used to make sure that they provide comparable measures of memory.
Participants hear a list of words and are asked to immediately repeat the words to the person interviewing them.
WILLIS: And then about five or 10 minutes later in the interview the interviewer will say, “Oh, remember those words that I read to you a while back, how many of those can you repeat back to me now? And so the cognitive test we have is a memory test of immediate and delayed word recall.
So what did Willis and Rohwedder find?
WILLIS: The countries that had laws that led people to retire early, there was a really quite substantial effect on people’s cognitive ability in this memory domain.
A downward effect, that is. Study participants from the U.S. and other countries where older people are more likely to still work, did much better than participants from countries like France and Italy, where older adults are less likely to work. American participants, for instance, scored nearly twice as well as Spanish participants. In the U.S., more than 20 percent of people over the age of 64 are still in the workforce; in Spain, only 2.5 percent of that age group are still working for pay. Willis calls this cognitive decline the “mental-retirement effect.”
WILLIS: The basic idea is that if you exercise your mind and you’re in a stimulating environment and you’re motivated to use your mind that you’ll maintain your cognitive abilities. Conversely, if you’re in an unstimulating environment, don’t exercise your mind, the effect would be negative on cognition. So in that sense it’s very much like the idea that physical exercise leads to physical fitness.
Willis is fairly confident the effect is causal — that retirement leads to lower cognitive levels. But as to the why?
WILLIS: We don’t really understand the underlying mechanisms very well.
We asked Willis whether boredom might have anything to do with the mental-retirement effect.
WILLIS: I must confess that when you called me I hadn’t really thought about boredom apart from occasionally thinking about my own boredom.
But he agreed that boredom is a plausible factor to explain the mental-retirement effect. So he did some digging for us and found that the H.R.S., the Health and Retirement Study, was already thinking about this.
WILLIS: There was a boredom question.
It’s part of a series of psychological measures that participants are given every two years.
WILLIS: It said, “During the past 30 days, to what degree did you feel bored? Not at all. A little. Moderately. Quite a bit. Very much.”
Keep in mind this is a survey for older Americans — 50 and up. Only about a quarter of these respondents reported feeling bored moderately to very much.
WILLIS: Very much was only about 3 percent. So, somebody who’s really very bored, that’s not a majority status by any means. But it’s also a fairly significant number say they’ve experienced some boredom.
Willis got curious about the correlations he might find in this data.
WILLIS: And I discovered, for example, that being married — people who’re married are significantly less bored than people who aren’t married. So that kind of goes to the idea that part of boredom at least is a matter of interactions with others probably, and people who’re not married probably have fewer interactions with others. Education is an important variable. The less-educated are substantially more bored than the well-educated. So people with less than high school, about 25 percent of them are bored, and that falls to about 14 percent for the people with college degrees or graduate degrees. Work status — there’re about 20 percent are bored among workers and about 25 percent among non-workers.
And because respondents take the survey every couple of years, Willis could see how their boredom answers changed after retirement.
WILLIS: There is really quite a strong negative effect, and that is: the people who were working in 2008, who subsequently didn’t work in 2012, were slightly more bored than they had been. On the other hand, the people who were working in 2008 who’re continuing to work in 2012 had a substantial decline in boredom.
None of this surprised Willis very much, nor are these findings particularly robust.
WILLIS: It’s far from proving anything so I would not really want to go further than that.
But it was consistent with his earlier research on the mental-retirement effect, and how that might be driven by a lack of stimulation. Which naturally leads us full circle, back to the question we began with today — about worker productivity generally — and how big of a problem boredom may be.
MARKEY: We just don’t know that much about how boredom affects people’s productivity.
That’s Amanda Markey, the boredom researcher.
MARKEY: Certainly there’s the intuition that it’s got to slow you down or make you browse the internet or make you maybe do other things that are not as helpful.
Heather SCHOFIELD: We’re thinking about a new project about the role of boredom in the economy.
And that is Heather Schofield.
Heather SCHOFIELD: I’m a development economist.
Schofield is at the University of Pennsylvania. She does a lot of work in India, and the new boredom research project she’s thinking about concerns Indian farmers.
SCHOFIELD: So you’re very busy when you’re planting things. And you’re very busy when you are harvesting.
But, agriculture being seasonal, there’s also a lot of down time. The ensuing boredom, Schofield says, may affect worker productivity.
SCHOFIELD: Where people who basically don’t have a lot going on — keeping them occupied and keeping their brain moving — go into something of a stupor. And it becomes very hard to get anything done.
And that stupor, Schofield believes, can have a compounding effect.
SCHOFIELD: There’s actually very good data in agronomy saying if you weed your plants maybe twice or three times in a season instead of once, you’ll actually increase your yields dramatically. But maybe you end up in this kind of mental-retirement state because there’s not a lot going on and it’s hard to get yourself out the door to weed the plants because you can always do it the next day. So, basically then the idea is that this mental-retirement, or this boredom, may actually in some ways decrease people’s output even more. And conversely, if you actually get people to work more, it may crowd in labor rather than crowding out labor, which would be pretty surprising. So that is to say, if I get you to work more, it would actually make you work even more because it gets you out of this state of boredom or mental retirement.
Heather Schofield does not know yet whether this is true; and the research project she wanted to do with Indian farmers — it never made it past the pilot stage. The logistics were too challenging. Still, her theory makes sense, does not it? That boredom can feed on itself, and make you even more bored, just as productivity can also feed on itself. So if there’s even a slight chance that boredom does lower productivity, shouldn’t we think about alleviating boredom in the workplace?
MARKEY: I think there’re probably some really cheap interventions that you could do.
Amanda Markey, you’ll recall, ran all those experiments trying to reduce boredom — by paying people, by turning their boring task into a game. What ideas does she have for fighting workplace boredom?
MARKEY: One would be a competition in recognition. We actually haven’t tested competition, but I imagine what that does is all of a sudden now you’re kind of doing a different task because you’re trying to do it as fast and quickly and efficiently as possible. So, I think that would be pretty effective.
But remember, Markey now teaches algebra.
MARKEY: I think I would go with totally gamifying a school — like always having that progress bar in terms of, are you learning, are you not, how do you compare with others? And I think this would achieve the short-term goal of having students learn subjects. I really worry, though, if it’s going to make kind, hardworking, persistent students, which is ultimately what we want.
Angela Duckworth, the Penn psychologist who used to teach high-school math, argues that boredom, for all its obvious downsides, may serve a useful purpose.
DUCKWORTH: We need that feedback to say, “Hey, you might not be learning very much right now. Notice that you feel this boredom and then see where that thinking leads you. You know, now what do you think, now that you realize you’re bored, what do you think is really going on?”
DUBNER: So, is boredom — whether you’re a teacher looking out at your classroom of students or whether you’re just a person sitting there thinking about, “Well, I feel bored and I’m gonna try and relieve my boredom and click around on the web,” and all of a sudden it’s an hour and I feel worse in the end — can boredom in either of those cases be what we might consider a really useful signal? Something that we should act on but we don’t really act on in necessarily a positive way for the most part?
DUCKWORTH: I generally think — I mean, if you want my secret view of what success in life really is, from a psychologist’s standpoint?
DUBNER: I want your secret view of success in life, definitely.
DUCKWORTH: All right, so I’m just gonna go out on limb here and say it. You know it’s not that I have like all the, a mountain of evidence and so forth. But I think it really comes down to this. Every successful person that I have ever interviewed — and I do a lot of interviewing of successful gold medalists and C.E.O.s of Fortune 100 companies and so forth — every single one is extraordinarily meta-cognitive. By that I mean that they are able to reflect on their own emotions, their own thoughts, and their own behaviors. They’re sort of able to step outside themselves and say, “Hmm, what am I doing? What just happened there? Is that something that I liked? Did I not like it? What can I do to kind of go back into the situation and do it differently next time?”
To a one, I would say that is characteristic of successful people. And so, therefore, if you’re bored, I think it’s a very healthy thing to say to yourself, “Huh, I noticed that I spent four hours today at work” — you know, my husband said this to me actually last night. He said, “You know, I realized that I really hate reading construction contracts.” (So he’s a real-estate developer.) And he had this moment of metacognitive insight that he found this like the most boring part of his job. And then what he did was, acknowledging that boredom. He’s like, “You know they have to get done, right? And they actually have to get reviewed very carefully because otherwise I could lose a lot of money.” So he decided to call a construction lawyer. And he delegated a bunch of this stuff and he felt terrific about it. I think, not that every kid can delegate reading their homework assignment or delegate memorizing their times table. You can’t always do that. But that moment of metacognitive insight to know thyself and then to say, “Okay, well, given the situation, what could and should I do about it?” I think that’s truly crucial.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Matt Hickey, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, and Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from Lyric Bowditch. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Amanda Markey, New York City algebra teacher.
- Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Angela Duckworth, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-host of No Stupid Questions.
- Robert J. Willis, professor of economics at the University Michigan.
- Heather Schofield, professor at the Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
- “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” by Timothy D. Wilson, David Reinhard, Erin Westgate, Daniel T. Gilbert, Nicole Ellerbeck, Cheryl Hahn, Casey Brown, and Adi Shaked (Science, 2014).
- “Mental Retirement,” by Susann Rohwedder and Robert J. Willis (Labor and Population, 2009).
- “Documentation of Cognitive Functioning Measures in the Health and Retirement Study,” by Robert B. Wallace, A. Regula Herzog, David R. Weir, Mary Beth Ofstedal, Kenneth M. Langa, Gwenith G. Fisher, Jessica D. Faul, Diane Steffick, and Stephanie Fonda (National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, 2005).
- “Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature,” by Stephen J. Vodanovich (The Journal of Psychology, 2003).
- “Employers, the government, and industrial fatigue in Britain, 1890-1918,” by A. J. McIvor (British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1987).