Driven Nuts By Boredom? Blame Your Bad Brain

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Is it fair to say that one can really be “driven nuts” by boredom? Maybe psychologically, if the latest edition of NPR’s Hidden Brain is to be believed. But even if it makes sense, as studies from NASA and others suggest, that “doing something—anything—is better than nothing”, we’re not so sure that terminology works for us. Being driven nuts sounds a lot like being insane, or out of control: like we’d end up being someone who needs medical help or who belongs in an institution. Boredom seems like the opposite of that to us. It’s not expressive, it’s oppressive, like the other end of the spectrum from crazy—like we’re too sane. Either way, it’s not exactly fun.

Back in 80s [sic], an airport in Houston was getting a lot of complaints about how long it took their baggage to arrive at the pick-up carousel. The vice president conducted studies, brought in consultants, and even hired more baggage handlers so that the wait time never exceeded eight minutes (an industry standard). Still, the complaints kept coming. Then the airport tried something interesting. They moved the gate farther away from baggage pickup so that fliers were walking most of the eight minutes rather than standing beside the carousel. The complaints stopped.

Unfortunately for us, one of the most boring things to do is to work, and a long time ago we all decided that basically everyone was going to have to do that in order to live. So what do we do when faced with the ultimatum of boring work or no food? Well, we generally take the boring work, of course. The weird thing is how long we hold out to avoid being “driven nuts”.

This study was, ahem, shocking. We know boredom is uncomfortable, but how uncomfortable? Timothy Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard investigated. They left participants alone in a room for 15 minutes with nothing but their thoughts and a device that administers painful electric shocks. They found that a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose to administer electric shocks (which they previously said they would pay to avoid) instead of just sitting still. One guy shocked himself 190 times.

Humans are dumb.