Commentary: Beware the incoming pandemic of boredom
In addition to confinement, flu-like symptoms, and deaths, COVID-19 also has delivered a potent existential threat in the form of mass ennui, says Raj Persaud.
LONDON: As people around the world find themselves in confinement to control the COVID-19 pandemic, look out for another affliction with an even higher infection rate than any virus. Boredom is now a serious health risk.
Is it possible that the more preoccupied we become with the physical danger posed by the virus, the more we underestimate the mental harms produced, for example, by negative emotional states such as boredom?
Some psychoanalysts believe that boredom, if it becomes entrenched, can become a neurotic condition called “alysosis”. Historically, ennui was associated with workplace tedium. By contrast, the epidemic of monotony we are facing is an unusual variant of what psychologists call “leisure boredom”.
Because many have not encountered this kind of boredom before, they may be worse at managing it. Severe boredom has been reported to be linked with a host of problems, including gambling, reckless driving, self-harm, alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, suicide, psychosis, paranoia, irritability, aggression, and even homicide.
In 2018, the Journal of Forensic Sciences published an investigation into the motive behind the murder by two sixteen-year-olds in Idaho of a classmate, who was stabbed 30 times. It concluded that relief from boredom and the need for excitement, which were evident in the case, are common factors in a variety of legitimate and deviant leisure experiences.
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THE EXTREMES OF BOREDOM
Boredom is hardly a new area of inquiry. In The Antichrist, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “Against boredom even gods struggle in vain.”
In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then.”
The most recent psychological research into boredom has uncovered a tendency for tedium to drive people to political extremes, greater risk taking, and impulsivity. If these findings are replicated in households, even when the viral pandemic has subsided, we could be left with a fundamentally altered psychological and political landscape.
In 2016, psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg, from the University of Essex, and Eric Igou, from the University of Limerick, published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology titled “Going to Political Extremes in Response to Boredom”.
They point out that “existential threats” were previously thought to drive the electorate to embrace political extremes. For example, demagogues who emphasise the danger to society from foreigners and other scapegoats induce fear in the electorate.
But Tilburg and Igou found that inducing tedium by giving people a very boring task leads to significant political polarisation.
Tilburg and Igou report that those who hold more radical political views claim to have a greater sense of understanding of the world, even if their explanations can be overly simplistic or incorrect.
Thus, the psychology of the predicament when facing a major threat drives us to seek for certainty and coherence, while boredom’s tendency to trigger a search for meaning helps to explain the political shifts it induces.
COVID-19 A DOUBLE WHAMMY
This argument suggests that the current viral pandemic represents a “double whammy” that is pushing the world further toward political extremism. In addition to confinement, flu-like symptoms, and deaths, COVID-19 also has delivered a potent existential threat in the form of mass ennui.
In a recent study, Gillian Wilson of The New School replicated Tilburg’s and Igou’s findings that boredom drives people toward political extremes. But she found that boredom induces extremism among conservatives rather than liberals.
An intriguing implication of this might be increased electoral support for right-wing leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, which could encourage them to pursue even more authoritarian policies. Indeed, this viral pandemic may lead to a political spiral into fanaticism – on a mass scale.
Another recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that people prone to boredom reported greater risk‐taking across financial, ethical, recreational, and health and safety domains.
The research – by Tilburg, Igou, and Aysenur Kilic – suggested that elevated risk‐taking might be due to the erosion of self‐control that occurs under boredom. A study published in Social Psychology, this one by Igou, Tilburg, and Andrew Moynihan, provides more evidence of heightened risk-taking.
This research may be taken as a warning that telling people to stay indoors and comply with other anti-contagion rules can backfire if such measures elevate boredom. The bored are more likely to engage in risky behavior, whether breaking laws and rules, or taking chances with their health.
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Whether we realise it or not, a key reason why we go on holiday is that a change in environment is a cure for tedium. But this treatment is denied to us for the foreseeable future. We can’t even change our scenery by getting outside as much as we need to – or should.
Authoritarians and dictators around the world may already be rejoicing at the support that could soon come their way.
Raj Persaud is a London-based psychiatrist.