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Cognition and perception

We'd rather do something that requires mental effort than do nothing at all

Although much has been made of the aversiveness of effort, the study suggests that being bored is at least as unpleasant — if not more so.

09 December 2022

By Emma Young

The enforced downtime of the Christmas holidays can sometimes pose a conundrum. On the whole, we don't much like to exert ourselves, so it's nice not to have to do a lot. Effort is, well, effortful — and unless it offers adequate rewards, like money or fun, we tend to avoid it. But as the authors of new work in the Journal of Experimental Psychology point out, we don't like to be bored, either. In fact, Raymond Wu at the University of British Columbia and colleagues find that although much has been made of the aversiveness of effort, being bored is at least as unpleasant — if not more so.

The team ran a pilot study plus 12 experiments (11 of them online, due to Covid restrictions) on a total of 2,311 participants. In almost all of the studies, the participants were repeatedly asked to choose between doing a specific task or doing nothing. They were clearly instructed that whatever they went for, the team would still gather useful data. And they were even encouraged to try out both options — but then to go with whichever they preferred. The number of trials varied across the experiments, from 25 to 100.

In six of the experiments, the participants had to choose between watching a blank screen or doing an addition task (in which they had to add a particular number to each of four numbers that were briefly presented on the screen). In two experiments, the choice was between a blank screen or doing a Stroop task (in which they had to name the font colour of various colour words; e.g. 'red' ' was coloured blue, and the correct response was 'blue'). In a further two experiments, participants had to repeatedly choose between either doing a Stroop task or watching the computer complete the task by itself. And in the last two experiments, the participants could opt to either count images, or simply view them.

The results of the experiments that involved addition showed that people preferred harder (e.g. 'add 3') tasks but not easy ('add 1') tasks to doing nothing. "This suggests that people do not necessarily prefer to do anything when faced with doing nothing," the team reports. "Instead, people may prefer only tasks that require some effort, suggesting that effort is sometimes valuable."

Participants showed no preference between doing the Stroop task and doing nothing, though they preferred to do the Stroop task themselves than to watch the computer doing it. They also preferred to count images than to passively view them — at least, when there were only 25 trials to complete; participants who had 40 trials to work through  were just as likely to choose to watch as to work.

Other findings suggested that there's a limit to our willingness to choose effort over doing nothing. The single laboratory study, in which participants either did the Stroop task or watched a blank screen, involved the greatest number of trials — 100. Just as in the shorter online studies, over the first 25 and 40 trials, the participants didn't show a preference for doing the task or doing nothing. But when the full span of 100 trials was considered, they chose to do the Stroop task only 40% of the time.

These findings "suggest that people tend to tolerate doing nothing to avoid effort as they complete more trials," the team writes. In fact, their analysis of all the studies found that with each additional trial, the participants were 1% less likely to choose effort. It might be the case, of course, that with more and more trials, the task itself became boring — and doing nothing became a preferable form of boredom.

Overall, though, their meta-analysis of all their data shows that while previous research has found that people tend to avoid cognitive effort, in these studies, "participants did not choose to avoid effort to do nothing and, interestingly, chose effort significantly more than chance" — though that effect was small. "Together, our findings demonstrate that doing nothing can be just as aversive — and sometimes more aversive — than exerting cognitive effort," the team writes.

This is not the first research to show that we do things we might not normally choose to do in order to avoid doing nothing. Earlier work has found that people will choose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit doing nothing. And boredom can even bring out people's sadistic tendencies, according to work published in 2022.

So if, over the Christmas period, you find yourself exerting more effort than you'd anticipated, don't give yourself too big a pat on the back: it could simply be that you'd rather peel sprouts, even, than be completely bored.