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The study of boredom excites scientists

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Boredom is a lot more interesting than scientists had thought.

A new study of students in Germany reveals there are five distinct types of boredom. That's one more than researchers had expected.

What's more, the newly discovered category -- which they labelled "apathetic boredom" -- was quite common among high school students, according to the study, published this week in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Boredom isn't just boring. It can be dangerous, either for the person who is bored or for the people around him. For instance, people who are bored are more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. Kids who are bored are more likely to drop out of school and become juvenile delinquents. Studies have also linked boredom with stress and other health problems.

"Given the high frequency of boredom in various situations encountered in daily life, and the variety of detrimental experiences to which boredom is related, it is rather surprising that to date there has been little research conducted on this specific emotion," the researchers wrote in their study.

To rectify that situation, Thomas Goetz, a professor of empirical educational research at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and his colleagues recruited two sets of test subjects -- 63 college students and 80 high school students.

The researchers gave the students personal digital assistant devices that beeped six times throughout the day. When the PDAs beeped, subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire about what they were doing and how they felt about it.

By gathering empirical data about real-life situations, Goetz's team hoped to validate psychological models that divided boredom into four distinct categories:

-- Indifferent boredom, a relaxing and slightly positive type of boredom that "reflected a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world."

-- Calibrating boredom, the slightly unpleasant state of having wandering thoughts and "a general openness to behaviors aimed at changing the situation."

-- Searching boredom, the kind that makes you feel restless and leaves you "actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom."

-- Reactant boredom, which is so bad it prompts sufferers "to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers)."

The big surprise in the data was the emergence of the fifth type of boredom. Apathetic boredom accounted for 10 per cent of all boredom among the college students and 36 per cent of all boredom among the high-schoolers.

This was a troubling discovery. Students experienced apathetic boredom with even stronger feelings of aversion than they did with reactant boredom, but they were far less likely to do anything about it.

In fact, after analyzing the numerical ratings from the students, the researchers concluded that apathetic boredom shared some features with learned helplessness and depression.

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 D4

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