- Boredom is a kind of discontentment with the everyday.
- Boredom can shape fashion trends.
- Boredom-prone people may prevent society from stagnating.
Is it cool to be bored? Certainly, from Iggy Pop to Billy Eilish boredom has been a mainstay in music. Claiming to be bored sets you apart from the pack. I am bored of what all the little people seem quite content to go on doing and being. Witness Iggy Pop’s ranting about being “sick of all the stiffs”. (Eilish’s breakup song might be more targeted, but the protagonist still seems to be "above" the games of the lost lover).[i]
The "coolness" of boredom also seems to be the province of the rich. Evincing a bored countenance tells the rest of the world that you are bored with what "normal" life looks and feels like. Even with all the money in the world, things seem flat and grey to the uber-rich, who clearly have it all and have done it all.[ii]
Perhaps this discontentment with the everyday is not merely the posturing of the rich but is part of the general function that boredom serves in our lives — acting as a call to action to find something to do that is more engaging, more stimulating than the quotidian things we all do.
But can boredom go beyond an influence on our motivations, whether it be for the everyday goals of the masses or the lofty aim of those few individuals with the means and motivation to, say, colonize Mars?
One recent study suggests it can. It shows that boredom can influence trends in the population and, in doing so, may function as an important way to prevent society from converging onto only one means of expression, or from stagnating in a sea of sameness.
We know that boredom can influence purchasing behaviour. From research showing the influence of boredom on impulsive online purchases to broader critiques of boredom as the factor that maintains our capitalist system, many have suggested a role for boredom in how we engage broadly with our consumerist culture. But this is not quite the same as asking whether boredom itself can influence the evolution of trends.
To study this possibility, the authors employed a computational approach, with their models representing an intriguing way in which boredom — at the level of a population — may play an important role in trend-setting.
To begin, the authors first explored color trends in the clothing on the front covers of fashion magazines over a roughly twenty-year period (from 2000–2022). For Cosmopolitan (but not for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar) trends did indeed emerge. That is, there were short periods of time where one color came to dominate the fashion on the cover interspersed with longer, much more variable periods — the very definition of a trend.
Next, the authors created and trained computational agents to "choose" what color clothes they would wear on a given day. These mathematical agents had only two components — a memory component and a boredom component. The memory component allowed them to recall what they had worn for the previous few days (most of us wouldn’t wear the same color shirt two days in a row).
The boredom component was then brought into play to sway the agent’s choices away from what the previous few days of sartorial flair had delivered.
This was then integrated into a crowd. How would a population of agents built like this behave and would color trends emerge? To do this they had the virtual agents interact randomly with one another. When one agent met another, they would assess the color of their companion’s shirt, and the more similar it was to their own, the more boring that color was rated and the more likely they were to choose a different color the next day.
As a computational model, these components can be tuned up or down. In other words, the agent can be made to be low or high in boredom, allowing the researchers to observe differences in behavior over time.
The first important finding was that they were able to mimic the trends seen in Cosmopolitan, using only a moderate level of boredom in their population of computational agents.
When the boredom of the whole population was set to its lowest level, color choices rapidly converged and showed little variation — a kind of 1984-style homogeneity of uniforms. At the other extreme, when the population’s boredom was very high, trends — such as they were — were highly unstable. A kind of fast fashion on steroids.
But it was what the authors did next that was truly intriguing. Up to this point they had varied the boredom levels of the entire population in the same way. What would happen to trends if only a proportion of the population were very high in boredom?
Stable trends in color choices emerged when only 20% of the population of agents were highly boredom-prone. Critically, the trends chosen by those with a high boredom component preceded the adoption of trends in the rest of the population. It seems that the bored agents were indeed trendsetters.
It would be a stretch to suggest that boredom is the only factor that drives fashion trends (or other fads, such as the rapid adoption of fidget spinners we saw some years back). The authors also tested a model of popularity by having some proportion of the agents more likely to interact with the rest of the population (think, influencers). Trends clearly appeared as a function of popularity alone — but when boredom was added to popularity, the trend-setting was even stronger. Clearly, there is a chicken-and-egg problem here that would be intriguing to pursue.
There is also a potential link to the myth that boredom begets creativity.[iii] We say myth because there is no credible evidence that boredom leads to creativity. But what this computational study might suggest is an association between boredom and anticonformity — something that may be related to creativity, or thinking outside the box at the very least.
This touches on an even broader idea that human society functions best with broad conformity coupled with a sizeable minority who challenge the status quo, thereby preventing societal stagnation. Even the proportion of handedness in humans hints at this. Most of us — around 80-85% — are right-handed. And yet, despite their minority status, left-handers are over-represented in the arts and at elite sports levels.[iv]
Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist, suggests that this is no accident and that evolution selected this proportion of right and left-handers to promote general conformity on the one hand — a trait important for stability in society — and "outsiders" who think very differently from the norm on the other hand. These outsiders help push society to new ways of operating that a uniform population would necessarily miss.
Perhaps boredom functions in a similar way. If we were all highly boredom-prone, society may feel chaotic, struggling to establish norms that enable stable functioning. But without boredom, society might converge towards uniformity and stagnation.
Whether boredom really fills this role requires a good deal more work to establish. But at least this intriguing story of boredom as a trendsetter provides a retort to the old adage that only boring people get bored. It just might be that we need a small proportion of boredom-prone people to shake things up and set new directions for the rest of us to follow!
[ii] For an interesting treatise on boredom and injustice and boredom and poverty see https://blog.apaonline.org/2020/09/23/boredom-and-injustice/ and https://philarchive.org/archive/ELPBAP both from philosopher Andreas Elpidorou.
[iii] There is some work suggesting a link between boredom and creativity, but that work is extremely problematic. In recent work from our lab we found no relation between the two and in some instances, higher ratings of boredom were associated with lower performance on a classic creativity task (Nettinga et al., 2023).
[iv] For just some examples see Holtzen, D.W. (2000). Handedness and professional tennis. Internatioal Journal of Neuroscience, 105, 101-119. Peterson, J.M. (1979) Left-handedness; difference between student artists and scientists. Perception & Motor Skills, 48, 961-962. Mebert, C.J. & Michel, G.F. (1980). Handedness in artists: Neuropsychology of left-handedness. Academic Press, New York.