Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Boredom Can Fuel Hostility Toward Outsiders

• August 16, 2011 • 2:42 PM

New research explains how feelings of boredom can both strengthen solidarity within your in-group and heighten hostility toward outsiders.

It’s all too easy to divide the world into people like us and outsiders. Newly published research points to a surprising factor that exacerbates this unfortunate tendency: Boredom.

Writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, University of Limerick psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou report boredom increases the value we place on groups we feel a part of and decreases the value of those who feel alien to us. They describe five experiments that provide evidence backing up this idea.

Their basic thesis is that boredom is more than a simple lack of stimulation. Rather, they write, bored people experience their lives — or at least the situations they find themselves in at the moment — as fundamentally meaningless.

This uncomfortable feeling motivates people to search for a way to re-establish a sense of purpose — which can be a good thing. In a research released in May, van Tilburg and Igou found boredom can inspire people to engage in helpful behavior such as giving blood.

But while aiding others can provide a feeling of purpose, so can strengthening our identification with key belief systems or social groups. If your sense of meaning comes from being a Democrat, a vegetarian or a Yankees fan, you’ll likely hold onto those affiliations with greater intensity in times of threat — and be more critical of Republicans, meat-eaters or those who root for the Red Sox.

In their just-published paper, Van Tilburg and Igou argue boredom is a subtle form of threat capable of activating this “my group first” mindset.

“We first tested this hypothesis by having Irish participants indicate their preference for the Irish name Eoin over its international, more-common equivalent Owen,” they write. “Participants who had first engaged in the boring task of counting letters in sentences counted Eoin over Owen to a greater extent than Irish participants who did not engage in the boring task.”

In another experiment, 47 Irish students were assigned to complete a highly repetitive task on their computer screens. Half the participants had to perform this task for twice as long as the others, which — according to their self-reports — left them feeling bored and meaningless.

They then read a fictional scenario in which an Englishman beats up an Irishman and later admits he “was acting on anti-Irish motives.” They were asked to play the role of judge and sentence the man to jail time. The bored participants “allocated substantially more months of prison” than the others.

“These results are consistent with our hypothesis that bored people seek meaningfulness by negatively evaluating the actions of an out-group member that are targeted against an in-group member,” the researchers write.

In a related experiment, 90 residents of Ireland read either the aforementioned scenario or a revised version in which an Irishman beat up an Englishman. All were asked to sentence the offender; half took part in a highly boring task before doing so.

The bored participants “gave shorter jail sentences to Irish offenders compared to English offenders,” while the others gave out equal sentences to the two men. Boredom apparently stimulated a stronger identification for one’s own group (Irishmen, in this case), and a harsher punishment for someone who harms a member of that group.

Van Tilburg and Igou note that boredom can also trigger other responses, such as sensation-seeking. But their research suggests it can also fuel hostility, particularly “if bored people encounter settings in which intergroup tensions are salient.”

That’s worth remembering as we watch footage of unemployed young people violently clashing with perceived enemies, be they rival gangs or the authorities. Such uprisings undoubtedly have multiple causes, but perhaps we’re overlooking a surprisingly salient point: These kids are bored.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.