Cognitive Science

Boredom and Debbie Downers

Monday, 30th March 2020

“As a scholarly matter, boredom is a relatively new research area in psychology. Historically, boredom was the turf of philosophers, a more dreary, Debbie Downer posse of thinkers.”

Hey, wait a minute…

Well ok, now we’re Debbie Downers. But here’s the thing – the supposedly objective stance that psychologists are taking towards boredom isn’t as objective as they seem to think. Here’s the psychological rationale:

““The literature in philosophy has been very negative about the experience of boredom,” said Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a psychologist and boredom scholar at the University of Essex in England. “They looked at it from a more existential point of view. The psychologists, we look at emotion — not whether it’s good or bad emotion, how it functions.””

Sure, fair enough. And yet, there are phenomenological approaches in philosophy which look at experience, not emotion. So, if we’re going for a scale of objectivity, that’s more objective. Why? Because it doesn’t assume that the meaningfulness of the experience comes after the emotion. It’s not like we have an emotion first, and then decide how to react to it or what to do with it. Our emotions are part of our meaningful experience of the world, not an analogue to sense data that gets assembled into something that eventually we understand as meaningful.

Yes, boredom isn’t necessarily just negative. But that doesn’t make it neutral either, waiting for us to assign value to it based on some other features of our psychology.

Again, another researcher: ““Boredom isn’t good or bad,” said John Eastwood, who runs the Boredom Lab at York University in Canada and is co-author of “Out of My Skull,” a forthcoming book on boredom. “It’s what we do with that signal.””

This reminds me of how people approach technology, as if a piece of technology is just a morally and meaningfully neutral tool, and everything depends on the intentions of whoever is using it. And those intentions do matter of course, but the technology itself is a compression of decisions made by lots of people within a bunch of social worlds. Each piece of technology is a method machine, a set of steps or procedures designed to achieve a goal. And when there are steps, there are choices being made. Nothing is neutral.

Similarly with emotion. It’s not something like technology in that it exists as a separate object from us, but we can and do create it. We’re not just subject to it. People can legitimately find things funny that other people find offensive, not funny, or incomprehensible. Same with sadness, same with any emotion. It’s not just an input that we later assign meaning to, it’s created in an already meaningful world.

So it’s a bit disingenuous of boredom researchers to suggest that they can treat it as if it is just an input to our psychological system. Sure you can do that – if you want to make the problem oversimplified. But I have another idea – why not actually listen to the Debbie Downer philosophers, and ask why they approach emotion the way they do? Maybe there’s a space where both psychologists and philosophers could learn something, and we could get a better handle on the human experience we call boredom.

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