Risky Business: Boredom’s Optimistic Impact on Risk Taking
Have you ever felt like you were bored to death? A boredom that was insatiable, gnawing, and almost consuming to the point that you would do anything to escape it, even if it meant taking a risk you might not normally take? How bored do we have to be to act against our better judgment? Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolation and drawn-out days of quarantine have been demonstrating such a possibility. When bored, we may even be willing to risk our own health for the sake of escaping boredom’s confines.
Why is this? Psychologists propose that boredom is a functional emotion, motivating the pursuit of alternative experiences or stimulation when current activities or goals are no longer rewarding. If it’s broken, fix it! Do something else! Try something that might be more exciting!
Because of the state’s motivation goals, we thought boredom might impact risk-taking in particular. Risks frequently offer an intense emotional experience—just think of gambling, excessive social drinking, and base jumping. So, when the motivation of boredom pairs with the opportunity for risk-taking, the question arises: does boredom increase our chances of taking a risk, and if so, why?
First, we tested how the feeling of boredom would influence the perception of risk, by asking participants their perception of 18 common causes of death, such as heart disease and lung cancer. We had participants start by watching a video: some watched a boring clip showing two men hang laundry to dry. Others watched a neutral video or some other emotional clip. Then, participants reported their worry and concern for the causes of death and estimated how many people in the U.S. die from each cause in a given year. Overall, as we had predicted, those who were bored were less worried and concerned, and estimated fewer deaths, than those in different feeling states.
We then built on these findings by asking new participants about perceptions of risk, as well as their own risk-taking behavior. How risky is it to drink heavily at a party, ride a motorcycle without a helmet, or bungee jump off a tall bridge? Would you do these things? Participants who were made to feel bored (again, with that boring video), relative to other conditions, demonstrated what we call an “optimistic perception of risk”—perceiving less likelihood of harm from taking risks and greater potential benefits. Additionally, those who were bored reported being more likely to take risks.
Well, it’s one thing to say we’d take risks, and another thing to actually take them. So, in a final study, we assessed the impact of boredom on actual risky behavior. We again created a state of boredom or left participants in a more neutral state. Then, participants played a virtual balloon simulation game, where you earn more points the more you inflate a balloon, but also risk popping the balloon and losing points. (Although it might seem surprising, this game has been found to predict real-world risk-taking behaviors such as substance use and gambling!)
What happened? Participants who were made bored, relative to those who were in a more neutral state, took more risks, both pumping each balloon more times before banking their points and also popping more balloons.
Overall, we found that a state of boredom resulted in more optimistic perceptions of risk and increased risk-taking. These findings support the functional model of boredom by demonstrating that boredom encourages the pursuit of alternative experiences—even those that are risky—in an effort to find an experience that brings greater emotional intensity.
So it seems that boredom can indeed influence people to act against their better judgment. These actions have been seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, as people experience worldwide boredom and isolation, and sometimes choose to act in controversial ways, such as attending parties or not following established community health guidelines. While we hopefully won’t actually be “bored to death,” the impacts of boredom in shaping the way we think of risk can influence the actions we may take and guide us in trying to make good choices.
For Further Reading
Bench, S. W., Bera, J., & Cox, J. (2020). State boredom results in optimistic perception of risk and increased risk-taking. Cognition and Emotion. https://doi-org.libproxy.kenyon.edu/10.1080/02699931.2020.1858760
Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2019). Boredom as a seeking state: Boredom prompts the pursuit of novel (even negative) experiences. Emotion, 19(2), 242–254. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000433
Elpidorou, A. (2020). Is boredom one or many? A functional solution to the problem of heterogeneity. Mind & Language. https://doi.org/10.1111/mila.12282
Lejuez, C.W., Read, J.P., Kahler, C.W., Richards, J.B., Ramsey, S.E., Stuart, G.L., Strong, D.R., & Brown, R.A. (2002). Evaluation of a behavioral measure of risk taking: the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 8(2), 75-84. doi: 10.1037//1076-898x.8.2.75.