Erin Westgate

UF Social Psychologist Erin Westgate answers Reddit AMA questions on boredom during COVID-19 pandemic

Erin Westgate, a social psychologist and director of the Florida Social Cognition and Emotion Lab, hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything on boredom while people practice social distancing.

Social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine; this is part of a new routine many people have adopted across the world, and it creates the potential for them to be bored.

Check out some of the questions people had for Erin on the AMA:

Q: I’ve seen a lot of videos of girl’s trimming their own hair and going for bangs. Is there a connection between being bored and wanting to change up your look?

A: Now there’s a study I’d love to run! Leave people alone with some barber’s tools, and experimentally induce boredom to see what happens… ;)

More seriously: we know that boredom does a few things to people. It makes us more interested in novelty; new things are extra appealing when we’re bored. And it makes us more sensitive to rewards – we pay more attention to the potential upsides than the potential downsides of our choices. And there’s some evidence that it may also increase risk-taking.

I don’t know of any work specifically linking boredom to hairstyles or grooming choices…but take a few people who need a haircut, leave them bored at home with the right tools, and given all the above… I would not be surprised if bangs were the result.

Q: What, if any, are significant psychological differences between people who are comfortable in isolation and those who cant go five minutes without human interaction?

A: There’s definitely individual variation in desire for social interaction. Extraversion is one of the basic dimensions of personality, and introverts are much more comfortable than extraverts with being alone. But the funny thing is: introverts enjoy social interaction just as much as extraverts if you “force” them to go interact with others.

Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen at Durham has done a lot of work on solitude, and finds that people can really benefit from solitude if they choose to be alone (there’s also individual variation in how much people want or desire that). Being alone seems to have a mellowing effect – people feel less extreme positive emotions, but also less extreme negative emotions as well, when you randomly assign them in studies to spend time by themselves for instance.

Q: How does our senses (visual, taste, and sight) play into boredom? Does being in the same place (locked down in home) play a major role in feeling bored and why?

Thanks for your research.

A: Wanna come do a PhD with me? That’s a GREAT question. And one we really don’t know the answer too, I would say. We know that attention is an important component of boredom: we feel bored when we can’t pay attention (either bc what we’re doing is too hard or too easy). But most of that work has looked at cognitive attention (or in some cases visual attention) more broadly.

We do know for instance, that people like to snack more when bored. I love these studies, but if you randomly assign people to a boredom induction, and then put snacks down in front of them, bored people eat more.

Whether that’s about taste is hard to say. We also find in other studies that if you experimentally make some people bored, they’re more likely to give themselves electric shocks as well.

So it might not be specific to our senses – but to the extent that sensory experiences are easy to immerse ourselves in and pay full attention, it’s entirely possible that they may reduce boredom. For instance, the fad of dining in the dark that was going around a couple years ago, where you go to a restaurant and the entire room is dark. The idea is you essentially have visual sensory deprivation, which should help you focus more intently on what you are tasting and have a more intense culinary experience. (And although I haven’t been to one, I’ve been told by friends who have that it’s an extremely interesting and not-boring experience).

But great question, and an area that we def need more research on!

Q: So when someone says they’re bored while at home, do you think it’s due to them doing the same activities over and over and not wanting to repeat or is it something else? TV has 100s of channels. Internet is a wonderous area for exploring and desires. I’m sure you’re place can be cleaned up to a degree. People have plenty to do and yet they are bored. Curious what you think and to give you something to do.

A: It’s funny, but having lots of options available isn’t always helpful if you don’t know what the right one is. I’m certainly guilty of that myself, of just complaining “I’m bored” when I don’t know what I want to do.

Boredom is tricky because it can be caused by two different problems: not having something meaningful to do OR not having the right amount of challenge (i.e., something is too easy or too hard). But we don’t always know which one we’re experiencing, so we don’t always know how to fix it.

It can also be tricky if all our options are superficially different (i.e., tons of netflix shows!) but don’t offer a variety of different challenge points or meaning. This goes to your point about whether people are tired of doing the same things over and over; they can be, if those things no longer are meaningful, or if they’re too hard or too easy.

For instance, I love to read but also am sometimes bored despite having tons of books around because it turns out I don’t reaaaally want to write a big serious Russian novel after a long day at work. “The Circle” on Netflix is a much better pick if I’m already running low on cognitive resources/fuel. So getting it right is much harder than we think, and having lots of choices can add to that feeling of being overwhelmed if we are already tired.

Q: I skimmed the articles you linked, and the idea of hobbies we enjoy sometimes being too difficult to provide relief for boredom really resonated with me. There are times when I’m really feeling up for playing an instrument or reading a book, but other times when all I want to do is binge a TV show. Could you speak a little more to the concept of the “right amount of challenge?” Are there any ways you recommend building our cognitive strength (for lack of a better term) to fully enjoy our tough hobbies?

A: That’s a great question, and I talked about my own struggles with this in answer to another question. If you’re familiar with the concept of flow, it’s quite similar: the overly-simplified version is that we have X amount of resources at any given moment that we can invest in an activity. Say 10 resources.

If Netflix takes 3 resources, that’s going to be too easy. You’ll feel bored.

If playing an instrument takes 15 resources, that’s too hard. You’ll feel bored. (And frustrated. And maybe anxious, too, depending).

The trick is to scale your activities to where you’re currently at (like Goldilocks!), and that’s what I love about your question. There’s two ways to do that: one is to change ourselves. We can increase resources short-term by doing things like drinking caffeine (my students will tell you I’m addicted to Sugarfree Rockstar) or getting more sleep, and those short-term situational changes have real impact. But we can also increase them long-term by getting better at our tough hobbies.

I recently picked up violin again after almost 15 years of not playing, and it is much harder and much more boring than it was when I stopped playing, because I’m so bad at it now. As I get better at it, a lot of that will become automatic again, and it will get easier. As that happens, I’ll both have more fun playing and also feel more “up” to playing even when I’m a bit tired (bc playing isn’t as demanding). The same goes for reading and other high-skill hobbies; they get easier as we get better at them, and we get better at them by doing them. (Which can be hard initially when we’re not good enough for them to be fun yet).

The other thing we can do is not to change ourselves, but change the situation. Keeping with the violin example: it’s much harder to practice a Vivaldi solo than it is to practice some simple Christmas tunes. If I’m tired and not feeling up to playing, I can increase my odds of enjoying it by modifying my activity to make it easier. In education we often call this “scaffolding”: when introducing a new activity to learners, we give them an easier modified version of the task to help them learn the ropes, then as they get better, we scale it up. Video games use the same logic: they get harder as you go.

But we can also use that in reverse, and make things easier for us when we need it. And if that helps us stick with it, it (in theory) builds up those long-term skills that will make even the harder more challenging versions easier for us (and a better fit) down the road.

Q: What actually is daydreaming? What function does it serve? Do people tend to daydream about certain topics or is everyone different in that regard?

A: We know surprisingly little about daydreaming, given how commonplace it is. There’s not even a great consensus about what counts as daydreaming – is all mindwandering daydreaming? Only if it’s spontaneous? But can’t we daydream on purpose too?

We’ve been studying instances where people intentionally choose to entertain themselves with their thoughts: intentional daydreaming (or “thinking for pleasure” as we call it more formally). We find that when you ask people to do this on purpose, they think about all kinds of things, but they tend to enjoy it most if they think about social topics (e.g., friends, family) and other people.

The jury is really still out on why we daydream, and what purpose it serves. One idea is that it’s cognitive “leftovers” (much like actual dreaming is thought to be by some); others suggest that it’s a kind of mental simulation that lets us imagine possible futures and play out different scenarios and how they might go. (Or reimagine the past).

Others think that daydreaming may serve as a kind of tool to regulate our emotions – to make us feel better or less bad. For instance, daydreaming about the past may make us nostalgic, and we may like feeling that way. Or we might daydream to escape boredom – that when we don’t have anything else to do, turning to our own thoughts may be a useful or adaptive strategy. Though rare, there are stories of folks in isolation or POW camps who used this kind of mental daydreaming to help cope with their really stressful situations when they didn’t have other alternatives out there.

Q: Is there a correlation between boredom and creativity? Is boredom a precursor to creative activity?

A: This is a really hot topic in the field right now, and I suspect that if you ask five different boredom researchers, you’ll get five different answers. There is some correlational evidence that suggests that boredom and creativity might be associated with each other. But it’s hard to tell from correlational studies whether boredom is really causing creativity, or whether there’s something about creative people that makes them more easily susceptible to boredom.

Likewise, we can ask people afterwards why they did something creative, and they might say it’s because of boredom, but we know from psychology that people can’t accurately tell you the true causes of their own behaviors.

So what we really want to look at (the “gold standard” of evidence) are randomized experiments, where we induce boredom and look at how it changes creativity. And those studies are more mixed: some do suggest that boredom might cause slight increases in creativity or associate thought, but others suggest that boredom doesn’t have much of an effect (or in at least once case, might actually have a negative effect).

What we do know is that boredom increases novelty-seeking in experiments, and novelty is an important component of creativity. So while I think it’s plausible that boredom spurs creativity, I think we really need better experimental evidence for it before we can really draw that conclusion.

Q: Hey Erin! This is a fascinating topic to me because I have ADHD, and I feel like I’ve lived the majority of my life with “boredom” as my default state. Has ADHD ever come up in your research?

A: This is actually a super-common question I get; you’re not alone! Boredom is caused by two things: deficits in meaning, but also deficits in attention. So, of course, it makes sense that ADHD is going to be tightly tied to boredom in some interesting ways. For a real deep dive into all the ways attention & boredom are related, check out this paper by John Eastwood (or visit his lab website).

The quick version is that we feel bored when we can’t pay attention, and ADHD makes paying attention particularly problematic. (Which of course results in what? Boredom, for many folks)

For the full Q & A, check out the original AMA with Dr. Westgate.


Erin Westgate, UF Psychology Department Assistant Professor and Director of the Florida Social Cognition and Emotion Lab