- No one likes to be bored, but for people high in narcissism, it can be almost intolerable.
- New research explores the connection between boredom, narcissism, and an excessive need for smartphone use.
- By understanding the factors that lead narcissists to become bored, one can gain better insight into how to manage relationships with them.
With the many sources of stimulation in a highly digitized world, it may be difficult to imagine how anyone can become bored. After all, there’s always some new message or text to check, endless choices of streaming shows and movies, and a constant drumbeat of information about everything from the latest COVID-19 statistics to celebrity scandals. However, because they need a flow of constant attention and admiration, people high in narcissism would seem to be particularly likely to experience this “blah” mental state.
Perhaps you have a cousin who, for as long as you can remember, demanded extra attention and reassurance. This cousin would become enraged and upset when other relatives focused on the younger children in the family. At a recent wedding, with the entire family in attendance, this cousin appeared agitated and ran to the bathroom, remaining there for most of the night. This debacle was nothing new, as the cousin had a long history of upending events ranging from funerals to baby showers when being forced to remain still or quiet while other people stole the glory.
When most people are bored, they manage to find ways to entertain themselves, even if it just means twiddling their thumbs. For people like your cousin, filled with insecurity, a period of time requiring patience can border on mental torment. Left with their own thoughts or, worse, the feeling that other people are ignoring them, they find ways to try to make up the void.
The idea that people whose need for relief from boredom reflects a form of narcissism served as the inspiration for University of Kentucky’s Albert Ksinan and colleagues' (2021) study on the compulsive use of smartphones. According to Ksinan and his fellow authors, previous research suggests that narcissists “might use smartphones to access social media, where they can curate and present their preferred self-image." On the other hand, maybe they do so, the authors suggested, because they’re bored.
Testing the Boredom-Narcissism Relationship
Apart from the study’s goal of examining smartphone use by narcissists, the U. Kentucky-led research provides valuable insights into boredom as a feature of the daily life of people who need constant admiration and attention. Ksinan and his fellow researchers decided to focus on the age range they thought would be most likely to engage in problematic smartphone use. The online sample of 532 young adults (average age 23 years old), completed standard questionnaires assessing narcissism, compulsive smartphone use, and boredom.
The narcissism questionnaires assessed grandiose narcissism with items such as “I prefer to be the center of attention” vs. “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.” The measure of vulnerable narcissism included items such as “I dislike being with a group unless I know that I am appreciated by at least one of those present.”
The instrument assessing boredom proneness (rated on a 7-point scale) includes such sample items as:
- It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
- Time always seems to be passing slowly.
- It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
- In situations where I have to wait, such as a line, I get very restless.
- I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
- It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy.
How did you score on these items? The average among the study sample was just 3.00, with most participants scoring between 2 and 4; a higher score than this would suggest that you’re constantly looking for excitement. In terms of the study’s purpose, you can also see how someone who feels that “vacuum” described by the authors would constantly be looking for ways to fill it up.
Turning now to the study’s findings, the authors reported that, as they predicted, people scoring high on both narcissism subscales had higher compulsive smartphone use scores (as indexed by items such as “Others complain about me using my mobile phone too much"). However, boredom served to play an important mediating role, at least for those high on the vulnerable narcissism scale. The link between smartphone use and vulnerable narcissism, in other words, was accounted for statistically by boredom scale scores. As the authors concluded, “vulnerable narcissists tend to suffer from feelings of boredom, and they seem to use smartphones as an easy fix to counter the negative feelings stemming from boredom."
Based on the findings, smartphone use for grandiose narcissists seems to stem from a different need than an attempt to alleviate boredom. For these more gregarious individuals who like to show off on social media, the smartphone becomes an expression of their need to be in the limelight.
Beyond Boredom in Understanding Narcissism
Returning now to the case of that relative of yours, think back on what you believe causes all that distress when other people are the focus of attention. If you see this behavior as an outgrowth of vulnerable narcissism, you may have a better understanding of how to understand and manage your future interactions. Although you may still find the behavior to be annoying, if not upsetting, you can at least gain perspective on what’s behind it. Rather than trying to dominate others, this person is just trying to feel whole inside.
Consider, also, what it’s like when a vulnerable narcissist seeks that validation through constant checking of social media. It must be a tough process indeed when those “likes,” hearts, and comments don’t come flooding in with each post. Seeking validation when validation isn’t there can only become the source of even more insecurity.
To sum up, boredom alone can’t explain all the behavior of a narcissist, even a vulnerable one. However, you can gain important insights to help those in your life find greater fulfillment by allowing their true selves to shine through.
Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Ksinan, A. J., Mališ, J., & Vazsonyi, A. T. (2021). Swiping away the moments that make up a dull day: Narcissism, boredom, and compulsive smartphone use. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 40(6), 2917–2926. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00228-7