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The science of boredom gets a jolt of excitement

The science of boredom gets a jolt of excitement

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Boredom is a lot more interesting than scientists had thought.

A new study of students in Germany reveals that there are five distinct types of boredom. That's one more than researchers had expected.

What's more, the newly discovered category — which they labeled “apathetic boredom” — was quite common among high school students, according to the study, published this week in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Boredom isn't just boring. It can be dangerous, either for the person who is bored or for the people around him. For instance, people who are bored are more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. Kids who are bored are more likely to drop out of school and become juvenile delinquents. Studies also have linked boredom with stress and other health problems.

Thomas Goetz, a professor of empirical educational research at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and his colleagues recruited two sets of test subjects — 63 college students and 80 high school students.

The researchers gave the students personal digital assistant devices that beeped six times throughout the day. When the PDAs beeped, subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire about what they were doing and how they felt about it.

By gathering empirical data about real-life situations, Goetz's team hoped to validate psychological models that divided boredom into four distinct categories:

» Indifferent boredom, a relaxing and slightly positive type of boredom that “reflected a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world.”

» Calibrating boredom, the slightly unpleasant state of having wandering thoughts and “a general openness to behaviors aimed at changing the situation.”

» Searching boredom, the kind that makes you feel restless and leaves you “actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom.”

» Reactant boredom, which is so bad that it prompts sufferers “to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers).”

The short surveys administered by the PDAs asked student volunteers whether they were in the middle of an “achievement activity” (such as attending a lecture or studying for a test) or doing something else, like eating, napping or doing something fun.

Students also were asked to rate the intensity of their feelings of boredom, well-being, satisfaction, enjoyment, anger and anxiety. If they reported feelings of boredom, they were asked to describe those feelings using a five-point scale that ranged from “calm” to “fidgety.”

What they found is that the life of a German student can be very boring indeed.

During the two-week period of the study, the college students were bored 28 percent of the time (that is, they registered feelings of boredom in 1,103 of the 3,945 PDA questionnaires). Life was even more dull for the high school students — they were bored 39 percent of the time (in 1,432 out of 3,645 cases.)

The big surprise in the data was the emergence of the fifth type of boredom. Apathetic boredom accounted for 10 percent of all boredom among the college students and 36 percent of all boredom among the high schoolers.

This was a troubling discovery. Students experienced apathetic boredom with even stronger feelings of aversion than they did with reactant boredom, but they were far less likely to do anything about it.

In fact, after analyzing the numerical ratings from the students, the researchers concluded that apathetic boredom shared some features with learned helplessness and depression.

The researchers wrote that they'd like to extend their studies of boredom to younger students, as well as to adults in workplace situations. But Goetz said he didn't expect any more boring surprises.

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