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Boredom as character flaw

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Monday, Jan 7, 2008

This article from Scientific American suggests something that I’ve often suspected, that boredom is less a matter of dull circumstances than of unimaginative people.


a new generation of scientists is grappling with the psychological underpinnings of this most tedious of human emotions—and they have found that it is more complicated than is commonly known. Researchers say that boredom is not a unified concept but rather comes in several flavors. Level of attention, an aspect of conscious awareness, plays an important role in boredom, such that improving a person’s ability to focus may therefore decrease ennui. Emotional factors can also contribute to boredom. People who are inept at understanding their feelings and those who become sucked in and distracted by their moods are more easily bored, for example.


In the past, I’ve argued that consumerism as a system induces people to become more prone to boredom by encouraging them to feel entitled to convenience and hence exist in a state of perpetual impatience, which is quite like boredom. People come to regard their own experience as disposable, something to be hurried through. At the time, I didn’t know about the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed by two psychologists, or what its application has found in terms of whether people are getting more or less bored as society becomes more saturated with commodified culture. But the researchers who created the scale have identified two main characteristics of those easily bored that fit well with my theory: Boredom stems, in their account, from a need for novelty and an inability to generate their own stimulation: In other words, they have become passive consumers who wait to be entertained by some new external stimulus as rapidly as possible. These in turn derive from a short attention span. The question then is whether consuming culture designed for people with short attention spans can actually produce a short attention span. Or is A.D.D. not something our environment has inflicted on us.


This point of view gives a new cast to a meme that already sounds creepy and ominous—the onset of the “attention economy.” It feels as though we have less and less attention to give, as our surroundings become hypermediated, and worse, the scarcity of attention reinforces itself. Attention ceases to be a renewable resource.

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