Imagine you are at a party and your friend invites you to meet his cousin Barbara. Your friend comes up with some facts: Barbara lives in a small town and works as a data analyst for an insurance agency.
His favorite pastime is watching TV. You find yourself groaning just thinking about this encounter, and that reaction may say something about both you and the data analysts who enjoy a bit of junk TV.
According to recent research, people have many preconceptions about the characteristics of stereotyped boredom. Like other types of stereotypes, these biases may not be objectively true, but they have extremely negative consequences.
To read especially on BBC Africa:
People judge those who conform to “boring” stereotypes harshly, considering them less competent and less warm than the average person, and unfairly avoiding them in social interactions, before they have even opened their mouths.
“They are marginalized,” says Wijnand van Tilburg, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Essex, UK, who led the recent study.
These findings may lead us to reconsider our hypotheses before meeting a Barbara in a social gathering.
If you go on a date with overly negative expectations, you run the risk of missing out on a potentially enjoyable conversation, while a more open mind might allow an incipient friendship to flourish.
Research may also offer some tips to make a better first impression.
A shocking search
Van Tilburg’s research is based on more than two decades of scientific interest in the experience of boredom. This research has shown that it is one of our most atrocious emotions, with a surprisingly profound influence on our behavior.
In 2014, for example, researchers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville asked participants to spend 15 minutes in an unfurnished room.
Participants had neither their mobile phones, nor their computers, nor any reading media, but there was a device that sent a small electric shock at the push of a button.
Despite the obvious pain, 18 of the 42 participants decided to do so at least once to break their boredom. It seems that any stimulation, even deliberate physical discomfort, is preferable to having no contact with your surroundings.
You may be wondering if this reaction was unique to the experiment setup, but has been replicated in other situations.
In a later study, participants were forced to watch a boring movie that played the same 85-second scene for an hour.
When given the opportunity, many participants chose to play with a device that emitted an unpleasant electric shock.
These behaviors may seem strange. But according to James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada, these studies show how boredom can drive us to look for new stimulants, which can have great benefits in everyday life.
According to him, when we sail the world we must constantly choose between exploiting the existing situation and exploring other possibilities.
Having done the same thing for too long without a proper reward, boredom forces us to change lanes, rather than getting caught up in a routine.
Danckert’s research shows that the feeling of boredom is especially distressing when we are consciously reminded of other potential sources of stimulation that we might explore.
It’s much harder for people to sit in a room doing nothing if they see an unfinished puzzle or a table with Legos they can’t touch, for example.
This may explain why it is so unbearable to stay with a bored person at a party, when we can hear all the other heated conversations around us.
Although we are forced to listen to the smallest details of the work of our new acquaintance, we miss the opportunity to establish a deeper social connection with someone who fits our personality much better. In psychological terms, we become aware of all the “opportunity costs” that have arisen from the conversation.
Given the pains of boredom, it is only natural that we should avoid such unrewarding interactions. Unfortunately, humans tend to unjustly prejudice people on the basis of incomplete information.
This means that we often decide that someone will be bored before they have had a chance to arouse our interest.
In a series of studies published earlier this year, Van Tilburg set out to identify the stereotypical traits that trigger this reaction, findings that can pause us whenever we are surprised by making quick judgments about a person’s personality. .
Working with Eric Igou of the University of Limerick and Mehr Panjwani of the London School of Economics and Politics, Van Tilburg first asked a group of 115 American residents to describe the most typical qualities they associated with bored people.
From these initial responses, the team created lists of 45 personal characteristics, 28 professions, and 19 hobbies.
The researchers then asked another group of more than 300 people to rate each of these characteristics on a scale of one (not at all boring) to seven (extremely boring).
These results were, in themselves, very revealing. According to Van Tilburg participants, data entry workers, accountants, and tax agents were considered the most annoying professionals.
Hobbies considered boring include going to church, watching TV, and sleeping. When it comes to personality, boring people are closed-minded, with a narrow range of interests, no sense of humor, and no strong opinions on any subject.
They were also seen as too negative complainers, complaining about any problems.
The team wanted to understand the consequences of these stereotypes, in particular their potential for social isolation. To do this, they created a series of vignettes based on the features studied in previous studies.
One portrayed “Brian,” for example, working in data entry at an accounting firm, and his main hobby was watching television, a portrait that fit perfectly with the boring stereotype.
This portrait contrasted with that of “Paul,” a local newspaper artist who enjoyed running, gardening, and reading, whose combination of personal details was generally considered much less tedious.
The team then asked participants how much they thought they liked each character and whether they would actively try to avoid meeting or talking to them. Participants were even asked how much money they would have to pay to spend a week of their life with that person.
Predictably, fictional characters who fit the criteria of the boring stereotype were not treated with kindness. In general, people were much less likely to want to meet Brian than Paul.
And to endure this boredom for extended periods of time, participants reported that they needed almost three times as much money. “They were really looking for restitution to hang out with these people, which suggests that this has some sort of psychological cost,” says Van Tilburg.
If you take into account studies that show that people would rather suffer than be bored, it makes sense that you need a reward to make up for the discomfort and all the other more exciting experiences that you may be missing out on.
We could all learn from this research. Your preconceived notion that people with certain professions or hobbies are inherently boring could prevent you from forming deep, meaningful connections.
(And if you’re in the dating scene, your negative prejudices can keep you from knowing the potential love of your life). Just by being a little more open-minded, you may find interest and friendship where you least expect it.
The investigation of Mr. Van Tilburg is even worse if you check some of these boxes yourself. Fortunately, he has some tips that could help Brians avoid hostile judgments everywhere.
The first step is to consider whether you can rethink your job description. Data analysis may seem like a boring profession at first glance, but you may be contributing to a larger effort, such as scientific research.
In general, scientists consider themselves much less boring than computer workers. Therefore, emphasizing the scientific element of your work could help to elude people’s prejudices.
If this is not possible, you can talk about your privacy. Remember that boring people were generally seen as closed people with little passion.
Almost everyone loves television, after all, and if you make it your only hobby, it will surely seem insipid to you. But what are your most personal obsessions?
Things like gardening, newspaper, fishing, and knitting look relatively positive. And the more examples you give, the more likely you are to find a common ground with your interlocutor. “I think it’s important to show the range of activities,” says Van Tilburg.
Finally, you can study the art of conversation. Things like your job or hobbies will mean little if you fail to create meaningful dialogue. “Bored people talk a lot, but they don’t have much to say,” says Van Tilburg.
Feel free to express your own opinions, but be sure to give the other person plenty of opportunities to express theirs as well, and be sure to ask as many questions as they find out.
Over time, your new acquaintance may forget all your prejudices.
If none of this works, don’t take it too seriously. Van Tilburg points out that people are much more likely to apply negative stereotypes to others when they feel threatened.
By judging yourself unfairly for your work or hobbies, someone may be covering up your insecurities. Boredom, like beauty, is in the mind of the viewer.
David Robson is an award-winning scientific writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022.