Thursday, 27 June 2019

Boredom: An Interview with Andreas Elpidorou

Here is an interview with Andreas Elpidorou (University of Louisville) whose book Propelled! How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Can Lead Us to the Good Life will be out with Oxford University Press in early 2020. The book focuses on the role of negative emotions and states of discontent in our lives and argues for the counterintuitive claim that boredom, frustration, and anticipation are good for us.

LB: To start, how did you become interested in boredom? Are you one of those people who have a propensity to experience boredom frequently?

AE: Boredom has been on my mind for years. Although I don’t score high on measures of boredom proneness, I am no stranger to boredom. I experienced its full force almost two decades ago (it’s hard to believe that it’s been so long!) during a phase in my life that seemed to be – while it was unfolding – endless: my mandatory military service. What I remember most vividly from the time that I spent in various camps completing unnecessary and often irrational and bizarre tasks is the experience of boredom. It wasn’t pure or unadulterated boredom—it was always mixed with other emotions.

All the same, boredom was the affective soundtrack of that period in my life. I was bored, I remember, with almost everything. At that point, I didn’t have the tools to critically reflect upon my experience. I didn’t really know what boredom was and I had only a superficial understanding of its causes. Still, I was able to recognize it as boredom and was motivated strongly to fight it. When you can’t change your situation, sometimes you are forced to change your self. 

In my attempt to alleviate the experience of boredom, I did precisely that. I changed my temporal orientation: I was constantly thinking about the future, anticipating what is to come. Because of the significance that I placed on the future, I was able to endure my boring present. When viewed as a future to come, my largely meaningless present became meaningful and tolerable. There’s this wonderful exchange in Beckett’s Endgame that has stuck with me for years. Clov asks Hamm: “Do you believe in the life to come?” Hamm responds: “Mine was always that.” During that period in my life, my life was a life to come.

Professionally, I came to boredom indirectly. I find myself ‘traveling’ from one philosophical arena to another and I change interests every couple of years. This movement is largely an unconscious process but I like it that way. Perhaps it is a coping mechanism that allows me to deal with philosophical fatigue or boredom. During one of my philosophical ‘excursions’ I became interested in our subjective experience of time and specifically, the conditions under which the perception of the passage of time can be altered. I stumbled upon this issue when I was reading Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness. 

At first I thought I wanted to understand the general character of our perception of the passage of time. Soon, however, I realized that my interest was much more circumscribed. I wanted to explore the idea of being stuck in time—a type of existence during which we find ourselves in an unsatisfactory situation and because of that, we become disconnected (in some sense) from our past and future and stuck in the present. Boredom seemed like the natural candidate of this type of existence and I wished to learn more about it. I discovered that most philosophical and historical accounts of boredom conceive of boredom as an entirely negative state, something toxic and which ought to be avoided almost at all costs. Yet, the more I thought about boredom the more I disagreed with this negative view. So, I set out to write something about boredom and why it can’t be wholly negative.

LB: Boredom has had a bad press in philosophy. For instance, Bernard Williams thought that it was the main reason why people would not value a significantly longer life. But the tide is turning. What do you make of the claim, defended in the psychological literature, that being bored is instrumental to productivity and creativity in human agents?

AE: Figuring out why boredom has the philosophical reputation that it does has been somewhat of a puzzle for me. Despite thinking about it for a while, I don’t have a good story to tell as to why the history of philosophy has casted boredom in such a negative light. Sometimes I think this is because state boredom (i.e., the everyday, short-lived, emotional experience of boredom) didn’t seem significant or important enough to deserve sustained philosophical attention, unless the intentional object of boredom (what boredom is about) was clearly something that shouldn’t bore us (God, our religious or political duties, or life itself). 

At other times I think that this negative conception of boredom stems from a preoccupation not with boredom as a transitory (short-lived) affective experience (“state boredom”) but with boredom as an existential condition. If boredom is understood as a pervasive way of experiencing one’s life and one’s world, then it isn’t hard to see why boredom looks so problematic. Understood as such, boredom is a way of existing in the world during which very little matters to us. Psychologists conceive of this manner of existing as revealing of the presence of a lasting personality trait (“boredom proneness”). In the last thirty years or so, a large body of evidence shows that boredom proneness is correlated with a number of psychological, physical, and social harms. So, there are good reasons to think that boredom as boredom proneness isn’t something good or pleasant. (I make a case for this claim in “The Moral Dimensions of Boredom”.)

(Matters are much more complex than what I just described. Despite the numerous [and often strong] correlations that have been reported in the literature, one ought to be careful when discussing trait boredom. Not only do we have a tenuous understanding of the nature of such a trait but also our instruments for measuring the presence of trait boredom suffer from poor psychometric properties.)

The tide, however, is turning. That is partly because of the fact that boredom is now the topic of a very active and exciting research program that in the last decade alone has delivered a great deal of knowledge. State boredom is an unpleasant experience that signifies a failure to engage with one’s environment in a desired manner despite one’s desire to do so. Even if we don’t have a good understanding of trait boredom, we do have a good (or serviceable) understanding of state boredom. We know about its cognitive, and volitional character. We know about its correlates and effects. And we are now learning more about its causes and neurological correlates.

On the basis of this new body of knowledge about boredom (and specifically state boredom), certain characterizations of boredom seem inaccurate. For instance, if Bernard Williams’ argument regarding immortality has a chance of succeeding, then his boredom can’t be boredom – either state boredom or boredom proneness. Williams must be thinking of something very different than what psychologists call “boredom” and I’m not exactly sure what that is. In turn, recent work on boredom has given rise to a type of qualified or restrained optimism about boredom. Boredom might not be all fun and games, but it isn’t just pain and suffering either. There are many sides to boredom and a complete examination of boredom requires that we familiarize ourselves with all of them.

The positive side of boredom is certainly an exciting development and I can tell from conversations with non-specialists and journalists that people are fascinated by the complexity of boredom. Much of this fascination, I think, is due to some recent articles that have reported a positive connection between creativity and boredom. There is a lot to say about such findings and in my forthcoming book Propelled! I present my take on them. Here, I offer the following brief remarks.

(1) At this point, we should resist the temptation of drawing any firm conclusions about the role of boredom in creativity. Some of the older experiments (that studied the effect of task-related boredom*) didn’t include any direct measures of boredom and their findings admit of an alternative interpretation that doesn’t implicate boredom. 

Specifically, the observed improved performance on creativity tasks doesn’t have to be the cause of boredom but it could be that of practice—participants had more time and more opportunities to work on those tasks. In a recent study, psychologists Julia S. Haager, Christof Kuhbandner, and Reinhard Pekrun have found not only that practice positively affects creativity but also that task-related boredom hinders it.

(*There are experiments that study the effect of task-related boredom on creativity and others that study the effect of task-unrelated boredom on creativity. The distinction between the two is simple but important. Only in the former type of experiments, boredom is a feature of the task that purports to assess creativity. In cases of task-unrelated boredom, what bores individuals isn’t the task that is supposed to measure creativity, but something else.)

(2) Of course, not every experimental study of boredom’s effects on creativity can be dismissed so easily. Experiments that focused on the effects of task-unrelated boredom reported some intriguing findings. Still, their conclusions don’t appear to be as strong as they are often presented. The now famous study by Mann and Cadman gave rise to somewhat diverging findings. Mann and Cadman induced boredom by asking individuals to copy telephone numbers from a phone directory. After the completion of the boring task, participants were given two polystyrene cups and were instructed to write down as many different uses for the cups as they could think and to circle the two that they thought were the most creative ones. Findings from two variations of the experiment disagree as to whether the induction of boredom increases both fluency (reported number of uses for the cups) and creativity (how original the reported uses were) compared to a control group. I’m very curious to see what follow-up studies will reveal. 

The Gasper and Middlewood study (which measured bored individuals’ performance on an associative thinking task) found that that it’s better to be bored than distressed or relaxed right before performing a task that requires associative thinking. This study was a comparative one. So, the findings don’t show that boredom is the emotional state that’s most beneficial in terms of creativity—a look at the reported data from the Gasper and Middlewood study demonstrates that elation outperforms boredom.

(3) The reported findings regarding a link between creativity and boredom ought to be understood as part of a more general picture regarding boredom. I am not alone in understanding boredom to be a state that promotes motion. But motion comes in a plenitude of ways. Physical exercise, creativity, eating, daydreaming, thrill-seeking, caring, and even harming are all forms of motion. Such an account of boredom allows us to see why sometimes boredom can lead to creativity and why, at other times, boredom can lead to some other less than salutary activities.

LB: In two recent papers (The bored mind is a guiding mind and The good of boredom), you have proposed a new understanding of boredom and its function. You argued that boredom "promotes escape from non-interesting situations”. Can you explain in what sense this is a benefit of boredom?

AE: The easiest way of explaining this point is by drawing a connection to pain. The sensation of pain is unpleasant, but the capacity to feel pain is good for us. It is a well-documented fact that individuals with congenital insensitivity to pain live difficult and often short lives. Their lives contain harmful and dangerous stimuli but they cannot sense harm done to them and cannot easily protect themselves. Pain is thus a mechanism that both signals the presence of harm and motivates us to change our behavior in order to protect ourselves. Something similar, I think, holds for boredom.

What boredom does is to protect us from certain situations and in doing so, regulates our behavior. Boredom does so by informing us of the presence of situations that are not in line with our interests and desires and by motivating us to do something else. If we were to lack the capacity to be bored, we would have a hard time noticing when we are faced with an unsatisfying, non-stimulating, or monotonous situation. Ultimately, boredom disengages us from our current situation, makes salient to us our alternative possibilities, and motivates us to do something else. On account of these features, boredom plays a unique and useful role in our mental and behavioral economy.

LB: In your work, you actively engage with the empirical research on boredom. How do you see the relationship between philosophy and cognitive psychology in the attempt to understand the mind? What do you see as the main challenges for empirically-informed philosophy?

I don’t have any refined views regarding philosophy’s relationship to the empirical sciences. I don’t think that philosophy differs in kind from other forms of inquiry and I think that much of what we call “empirically-informed philosophy” already takes place in science journals; it’s just called something else. Sometimes this type of “philosophy” is good and sometimes it isn’t. In my own work, I tend not to think too much about questions and issues regarding the boundaries of philosophy. I read whatever I find interesting and helpful, regardless of its genre or intellectual origin. In fact, what I enjoy most about my current research situation is the freedom to explore various and diverse ideas without caring about labels.

Having said that, I don’t think that philosophers can ignore the science of boredom. (Psychologists can’t ignore certain important theoretical questions regarding boredom either! Part of my work is devoted to showing how philosophically loaded empirical research on boredom really is.) I’m puzzled by purely conceptual attempts to understand the boredom (or any affective state). The character of boredom is neither obvious nor intuitive and attempts that proceed purely on conceptual grounds runs the risk of changing the subject.

The challenges for empirically-informed philosophy are many but each one of us, I think, experiences them and deals with them differently, depending on one’s background, expertise, familiarity with literature, and patience. There is a remarkable output on boredom, so trying to come to terms with work on boredom can feel like a Sisyphean task— by the time that I read enough to say something about the recent literature, more of it is published. It’s hard to keep up! A past version of myself would have found this to be very frustrating. My present self doesn’t. The fact that so much work is being produced is a gift to researchers interested in boredom. There are many things that we don’t know, but precisely because of that there so many opportunities to enrich our understanding of boredom (and of other mental phenomena) and to embark on new research projects.

LB: You are also very committed to disseminating widely the results of your research, and your work on boredom has appeared in Aeon and the media more widely (e.g., in Forbes, Zapierand Nautilus among many other outlets). Do you consider yourself as a “public philosopher”? Do you think that philosophers have a responsibility to engage the general public as well as more specialised audiences?

AE: I didn’t set out to be involved in “public” philosophy but I’m delighted that some of my work has popular appeal. This is something that I never expected but after my Frontiers in Psychology piece on boredom I kept getting phone calls from journalists who wanted to know more about boredom. (Recently, I was interviewed by Vogue Australia and when I told my 4-year-old daughter (who loves fashion), she assumed that I’d be on the cover and wanted to know what I’d be wearing. Needless to say she was disappointed with how things turned out!) 

With the exception of my Aeon essay, I haven’t done much public philosophy in writing but I hope that this is going to change soon. My book with OUP is meant to be partly public philosophy – it is a research monograph but one, I hope, that is written in an accessible and lively manner and which requires no prior knowledge of the subject matter. Up until now, my public philosophy consisted mostly of talks — I’ve given talks at schools, libraries, churches, and even nursing homes about boredom, frustration, and the good life. I’m always amazed by how interested people are in philosophy. We often take philosophy for granted. But not everyone has the luxury to take the time to think philosophically. My encounters with non-philosophers and non-specialized have been a great source of pleasure.

Do I think that philosophers have a responsibility to engage the general public? I don’t think so. Still, I do think that as philosophers we have a responsibility to justify the existence of our discipline. Doing public philosophy is just one way of doing that. But it isn’t the only way. Publishing in academic journals is another. And so is teaching.

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