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Boredom can be a public health threat in the age of social distancing

Recent research sheds light on why certain people struggle to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The word “pandemic exhaustion” has been bandied around by journalists and public health experts in recent months. The general gist is that people have grown weary of the pandemic and have been holding apart for nearly a year and going. Anxiety, hopelessness, depression, indignation, and boredom are all symptoms of fatigue.
The presence of boredom on that list concerns those who study the phenomenon. “Usually boredom tells you that you should do something else,” says sports psychologist Wanja Wolff of the University of Konstanz in Germany. “In the context of a pandemic … that might not be the best thing.”

Those fears have recently gained more momentum. People who are often bored are more likely than others to flout social distancing recommendations, according to two reports, one by Wolff and colleagues and the other by a US-Canadian study team. Boredom-prone people tend to be at an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Boredom, according to these reports, may be a real but underappreciated public health threat.
Boredom has traditionally been portrayed as a personal flaw in the Western humanities. Boredom, according to German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, is the sense of existence’s void.

It was dubbed a “leprosy of the mind” by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Researchers researching boredom, on the other hand, believe it deserves a more neutral interpretation. According to current theory, the sensation of having nothing to do — what Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “the need for desires” — acts as a warning, a call to the body to change gears.
“Boredom is a sign that you aren’t meaningfully interested in the world,” says Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville, a social psychologist. Boredom can be caused by two things, according to researchers, like Westgate: a lack of concentration or a loss of meaning.

According to Westgate, many of us have lost the emphasis, or mental acuity, of the Before Times. There have been civil rights marches, political turmoil, a debilitating recession, and a slew of other big and small stressors, in addition to a deadly pandemic that has forced community shutdowns and remote schooling. Dullness will result from those distractions that impede our ability to remain mentally sharp. When boredom is described in this way, the busyness of parents of young children, for example, offers little protection from feeling down. In reality, both understimulation and overstimulation can short-circuit one’s ability to pay attention, according to Westgate and others.

Meanwhile, much of our worlds have come crashing down around us. Easy habits, such as getting coffee from the same café every day or having a regular lunch date with a friend, according to personality and social psychologist Samantha Heintzelman of Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey, give life meaning. “Right now, we’re experiencing a mutual lack of routine,” Heintzelman says. That is to say, the social distancing rules intended to shield us from a deadly disease have also taken away the seemingly insignificant aspects of life that offer it meaning.

This type of boredom is “doubly evil” when people lose both attention and sense in their lives, according to Westgate. “You may be bored by something meaningful, but you can’t pay attention to it because it’s either too straightforward or too difficult. You may be bored because you are paying attention, but it is meaningless,” she explains. “However, if anything is pointless and you are unable to pay attention, you are doubly bored.”
These two recent boredom studies, each with nearly 1,000 North American participants, show how the pandemic could be causing elevated levels of boredom among those who are vulnerable to it.

Researchers wanted to measure the connection between a person’s inherent proclivity for boredom and rule-breaking behaviors during the pandemic, such as spending less hours apart from others or hosting a social gathering, in the study by the US-Canadian team. The team notes in the March Personality and Individual Differences that boredom proneness clarified 25% of the variation in rule-breaking behaviors across the study. The researchers discovered no significant link between rule-breaking and other variables that could affect it, such as age or gender. (Boredom is more prevalent in young adults and men than in other groups.)

According to study coauthor and cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert of the University of Waterloo in Canada, “no single factor can explain 100 percent of any human action.” However, “a quarter of a percent is a big amount.”
Meanwhile, Wolff and colleagues discovered that boredom-prone people rated social distancing as more difficult than others and were less likely to follow social distancing guidelines, according to their findings published online July 28 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Both teams discovered that those who scored higher in boredom were also marginally more likely to report having received COVID-19 than those who scored lower.

“Boredom is an incredibly powerful motivator for behavior,” Wolff says. Yet, he adds, people can struggle with how to respond to that signal in safe and meaningful ways.

Westgate is unsurprised that people who are susceptible to boredom but can socially isolate themselves find sitting at home mind-numbingly boring. Yet she has concerns for the rest of us: How are people who aren’t used to being bored dealing with the pandemic-induced lack of concentration and meaning? Are they violating the rules as well?
The analysis is less direct in this case, but it is suggestive. Westgate and colleagues asked 42 undergraduate students to sit alone with their thoughts for several minutes in a 2014 study published in Science, with no cell phones permitted. The students, on the other hand, had the choice of receiving a painful electric shock by pressing a button.

Around two-thirds of male students and a quarter of female students pressed the button, some repeatedly, implying that for some people, even discomfort is preferable to boredom.
Similarly, social psychologist Wijnand Van Tilburg and colleagues found that causing boredom in people through a repeated gambling game caused them to make riskier decisions in a 2019 study published in Behavioral Decision Making.
According to Van Tilburg of the University of Essex in England, “momentary boredom is not necessarily evil.” However, if the situation “is unresolved or the resolution to it is harmful, such as overeating, being violent, or not wearing a mask,” boredom can lead to severe public health consequences over time.

A recent study sheds light on how unresolved boredom can manifest itself. Most epidemiological models assume that as soon as COVID-19 cases start to rise in a given region, people will begin and maintain social distance. As a result, fatalities, which lag cases by a few weeks, will spike before plummeting in response to the social distance, giving the model’s death predictions the appearance of a mountain with a sharp peak.

However, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Dec. 22, based on Google’s COVID-19 Mobility Reports, people in most U.S. states initially hunkered down as cases increased in the spring and summer, but then increased their movements until the danger passed. As a result, real COVID-19 fatality curves resemble plateaus or brief dips accompanied by a rapid rise rather than a peak. That is, death rates did not fall as predicted, but instead stayed high. The projected curves better reproduced real-life fatality trends when the researchers integrated the premature revival of behavior into epidemiological models.

However, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Dec. 22, based on Google’s COVID-19 Mobility Reports, people in most U.S. states initially hunkered down as cases increased in the spring and summer, but then increased their movements until the danger passed. As a result, real COVID-19 fatality curves resemble plateaus or brief dips accompanied by a rapid rise rather than a peak. That is, death rates did not fall as predicted, but instead stayed high. The projected curves better reproduced real-life fatality trends when the researchers integrated the premature revival of behavior into epidemiological models.

Wolff is now looking at ways to assist people who are bored in adhering to social distancing laws. In a paper published in July, he found that people who are susceptible to boredom have greater self-control and stick to rules better. However, Wolff believes that teaching people to have more self-control would be difficult. Instead, he recommends that people make contingency arrangements to will the need for self-control.
His preliminary study, published on PsyArXiv.com on June 25, indicates that such “if-then” strategies may be beneficial. For example, if an indoor gym is too unsafe, a person might start running outside instead.

Wolff recommends that people take small measures to make such a change of routine easier to stick to, such as laying out exercise clothes on the bed the night before and keeping shoes by the front door. He explains, “The idea is to make actions more automatic.”
Even with the best-laid plans in place, maintaining emphasis and sense during a pandemic is difficult. According to researchers, boredom is a neutral signal, meaning it is neither good nor bad. And some people who hunker down right now and investigate their boredom may find that it has deeper roots that predate the pandemic.

So, according to Van Tilburg, the most positive view of the situation is that certain citizens will use this extended period of boredom to consider broader life goals. “It is possible to derive meaning from these bleak circumstances.”

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