An empty room can actually be less boring than other more stimulating environments
Under some conditions, environments that allow for multiple potential activities can make people feel more bored than relatively empty environments, according to new research published in Cognition and Emotion. The study suggests that the presence of alternative activities plays a role in the experience of boredom.
“We were primarily interested in whether restricting individuals’ action space (actions they are able to do) would lead to more boredom, when the restricted actions themselves remained salient,” said Andriy Struk, a recent psychology PhD graduate from University of Waterloo and the corresponding author of the study.
“This reasoning mirrors the notion that opportunity costs, (i.e., the value of doing an alternative action is greater than the one we are currently engaged in) is linked to boredom. A notion that has not been tested since it was proposed by Kurzban and colleagues in 2013. Our goal was essentially to test this theory and demonstrate that there is indeed a relationship between opportunity costs and boredom.”
In the study, 228 undergraduates were randomly assigned to sit in one of two rooms from about 15 minutes. One room was mostly empty, containing only a chair, an empty bookshelf, a chalkboard, a filing cabinet, and a desk. The other room was filled with all the same furniture along with other engaging objects, including a laptop computer, a partially completed Lego car puzzle, and more.
The students were instructed to refrain from engaging with anything in the rooms and only entertain themselves with their thoughts.
The researchers found that participants placed in the room with many engaging objects reported feeling significantly more bored compared to those placed in the empty room.
“This study presents a somewhat counterintuitive finding, which is that some environments that are devoid of any stimuli (i.e., an empty room) can actually be less boring than other more stimulating conditions, albeit which we cannot engage with,” Struk told PsyPost.
“Thus a take away for an average person is that when managing boredom it is important to consider if you will be restricted from engaging in something that the environment otherwise affords (an activity that one could engage in if it was not for the restriction). For example, bringing a phone to a class might actually make us feel more bored, if we are not able to use it.”
“We already know it is important to minimize distractions, but my research adds another layer. Although a bit too simplified, it suggests that distractions, in addition to hampering our performance, can make us feel bored as well,” Struk explained.
As with any study, the new research includes some limitations.
“The largest caveat is that current results are based on an experiment conducted in highly controlled conditions. A great deal of research is yet to be conducted to see how the observed effects play out in ecologically valid conditions. For example, does bringing a phone truly make us more bored with a lecture, and if so is this effect sufficiently strong to warrant a ‘phone ban’? This is something that current results suggest but remains untested,” Struk said.
The study, “Rich environments, dull experiences: how environment can exacerbate the effect of constraint on the experience of boredom“, was authored by Andriy A. Struk, Abigail A. Scholer, James Danckert, and Paul Seli.
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