Sisyphus pushes his rock uphill, his kids sitting on it, ask "Are we there yet?"

Futility and Boredom



Elle Hunt has written great piece in the Guardian on ‘Why it is good to be bored‘. It starts in the vivid boredom of her own childhood

I remember my first experience of boredom as vividly as my first kiss. The recollection is so clear I thought I must have been at least seven years old. Actually, my mother tells me, I was only three or four, which makes being bored my earliest memory. My sister and I were sitting in our family car, parked outside Mum’s friend’s house, into which she had disappeared. “Won’t be long,” she’d said. That had been 15 minutes earlier. I could do nothing but wait, but I wanted, strongly, to do anything else. I felt the bind on a physical level, the confines of the car consistent with the constraints on me. This was boredom, and I was appalled by it.

Neither the car radio nor my baby sister offered any relief. Then my gaze landed on a small hole in the velour lining of the car roof. One of the defining characteristics of boredom is that time seems to drag – minutes pass as hours. The inverse is also true: when we are highly engaged in what we are doing, we lose track. So I cannot tell you how long I had been happily at work on that hole when mum finally returned to the car to find the back seat, and both of her children, coated with foam.

Sisyphus pushes his rock uphill, his kids sitting on it, ask "Are we there yet?"

And then goes on to describe the work of research of James Danckert, John D Eastwood and the Toronto Boredom Lab.

Danckert is an Australian cognitive neuroscientist now based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He began studying boredom 15 years ago, a case of “physician, heal thyself,” he says. “As a kid, and still into my adult years, I experience boredom, and whenever I do, I hate it. I find it a very frustrating, agitating experience.2

Eastwood became interested in boredom 20 years ago, after observing a seeming “crisis of agency” among young men he saw in his private psychotherapy practice. They were disengaged, under-achieving, perhaps abusing marijuana or struggling with depression, he says. Eastwood characterises their circumstance as a “failure to launch into life”, which these men told him they experienced as “being chronically bored”. But what was being bored, exactly? “I thought: what is this?”

I do wonder what methods they used. Because the lab setting is an unusual place and can change your results. The research reminds me of very famous studies by Martin Orne in the 1960s. He was interested in why participants always did what him told them in experiments and tried to devise extremely boring situations where they might rebel. They didn’t.

We tried to develop a set of tasks which waking subjects would refuse to do, or would do only for a short period of time. The tasks were intended to be psychologically noxious, meaningless, or boring, rather than painful or fatiguing.

For example, one task was to perform serial additions of each adjacent two numbers on sheets filled with rows of random digits. In order to complete just one sheet, the subject would be required to perform 224 additions! A stack of some 2,000 sheets was presented to each subject-clearly an impossible task to complete. After the instructions were given, the subject was deprived of his watch and told, ‘Continue to work; I will return eventually.’

Five and one-half hours later, the experimenter gave up! In general, subjects tended to continue this type of task for several hours, usually with little decrement in performance. Since we were trying to find a task which would be discontinued spontaneously within a brief period, we tried to create a more frustrating situation as follows:
Subjects were asked to perform the same task described above hut were aIso told that when finished the additions on each sheet, they should pick up a card from a large pile, which would instruct them on what to do next.
However, every card in the pile read,

You are to tear up the sheet of paper which you have just 
completed into a minimum of thirty-two pieces and go on 
to the next sheet of paper and continue working as you
did before; when you have completed this piece of paper,
pick up the next card which will instruct you further.
Work as accurately and as rapidly as you can.

Our expectation was that subjects would discontinue the task as soon as they realized that the cards were worded identically, that each finished piece of work had to be destroyed, and that, in short, the task was completely meaningless. Somewhat to our amazement, subjects tended to persist in the task for several hours with relatively little sign of overt hostility.

Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17(11), 776. [Orne 1962 pdf]


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