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Emotion, Mental health

Is monotony worse than melancholy? Participants gave themselves electric shocks when bored, not when sad

Results tally with some past research into real-life self-harming.

01 March 2016

By Christian Jarrett

To psychologists, there's nothing boring about boredom. Among other things, they're beginning to realise just what an especially aversive state it is to be in. A new study in Psychiatry Research brings this home – the researchers found that student participants were more inclined to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks when they were provoked into feeling bored (a negative, low arousal state) than when they were provoked into feeling sad (a negative, but high arousal state, meaning that it is unpleasant but stimulating). This was especially the case for students with a history of self-harm, suggesting the research may have implications for understanding why people resort to deliberately hurting themselves in real life.

Chantal Nederkoorn at Maastricht University and her colleagues allocated the 69 participants, 19 per cent of whom were men, to one of three hour-long conditions: one involved watching a film about a girl who needed a bone marrow transplant and was designed to provoke sadness; another involved watching a documentary about the memory researcher Eric Kandel and was designed as a neutral/control condition; and the final condition involved watching an 83 second segment from that Kandel documentary (in which he is playing tennis with a friend) on repeat for one hour, which was designed to provoke boredom. Emotion questionnaires confirmed that the conditions had the desired effects. Prior to viewing the videos, participants in all conditions were wired to an electric shock machine and were told that, if they wanted, they could administer shocks to themselves of varying intensities whenever they liked.

The researchers tallied up the number of times the participants had chosen to shock themselves after 15 minutes and after one hour, and the intensity of the strongest shock they'd chosen (the machine's highest setting was 20 milliamps – painful but not dangerous). There was no difference between the neutral and sad condition in the number or intensity of shocks that participants gave themselves. However, after one hour, participants in the boredom condition had given themselves more shocks than those in the neutral condition, and on average, the strongest shock they'd given themselves was higher in the boredom condition.

This contrast between conditions was especially apparent for the participants who had a history of self harm in real life. For example, after one hour,  participants with a history of self harm and who were in the boredom condition had given themselves an average of just over 20 shocks (the strongest at just under 10 milliamps on average), whereas those in the neutral condition had given themselves an average of less than 2 shocks (with the strongest at less than 4 milliamps on average). The effect of boredom was also more immediate among the participants with a history of self-harm – just 15 minutes in, they had already shocked themselves more times in the boredom condition than in the neutral condition.

The researchers were cautious about over-interpreting their findings – for example, they pointed out that unlike in real life, the participants weren't given any other way, besides the electric shocks, to distract themselves from the sadness or boredom. And they admitted the study involved a small, non-clinical sample.

Nonetheless, the finding that boredom was especially effective at provoking people into self-administering painful electric shocks does tally with some past research into real-life self-harming – for example, people have previously described hurting themselves for stimulation and to "feel something", and boredom has previously been linked with suicidal thoughts. "Solitary confinement in jail has [also] been associated with increased risk of self-harm in jail," the researchers said. "As the same mechanism can already be provoked in non-clinical undergraduate students within one hour, it seems that the negative effects of boredom and monotony should not be taken lightly."

Further reading

Nederkoorn, C., Vancleef, L., Wilkenhöner, A., Claes, L., & Havermans, R. (2016). Self-inflicted pain out of boredom Psychiatry Research, 237, 127-132 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.01.063

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