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The Politics of Boredom

How boredom might be making us more polarized than we ought to be.

We are just days away from the U.S. election and people well beyond that country are paying close attention. But just how many of us are truly engaged by the serious issues of the day—the climate crisis, systemic racism, income inequality—and how many are simply engaged by the spectacle? Politics can be a divisive issue at family dinners and it has become ever more divisive over the past four years in the United States. Does boredom somehow help explain this ever-widening chasm?

Could it be that boredom plays a role in how we engage with politics—on the one hand, many of us "opt out" of the discussion, tarring all politicians with the same brush as self-interested hucksters, while on the other hand some of us may double down on our commitment to an ideology as a result of the need to make sense of the noise—a need borne of boredom? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive—many may opt out not just because of the monotony of politicians and political slogans, but because it is so hard to sift through the noise to find the signal.

Certainly, there are a plethora of opinion pieces decrying the boring nature of politics, or more accurately, the boring way in which politics is presented to the public. There is a uniform to the way politicians dress in their staid, dark business suits (unless they are pressing the flesh on the streets, then it’s all, abandon the necktie and roll up the sleeves—just a different uniform). Slogans are by their nature similar in style—brief sound bites meant to rouse your enthusiasm with little attention to the meat of the issues of the day. The exhortation to K.I.S.S.—keep it simple stupid—means all things sound basically the same. It’s the economy stupid!

In some sense, this push to have catchy slogans, October surprises to break up the sleepiness of a long campaign, has made some yearn for the good old days of boring politics—politics that focused on the development of policy. That desire to have politics be boring sounds a little like a desire for most of us to not pay too much attention. Certainly, it is possible to achieve successful engagement in politics and policy without making it boring. But pushing our politicians to engage in constant gamesmanship (who can have the biggest sound bite, the most retweeted tweet?) serves to disengage people just as effectively as painting the whole thing beige. It’s a kind of magician’s trick. If I can either bore you to death with unnecessarily detailed, impenetrable discussion of policy, or otherwise smother you in controversy, you risk becoming bored of it all.

So boredom can make us disengage from politics, but there’s also evidence to show that boredom pushes us towards a stronger commitment to our own particular ideology.

Wijnand Van Tilburg and Eric Igou have cast the in-the-moment feelings of boredom as a signal that whatever we are doing now lacks meaning. In other words, boredom pushes us to seek meaning. In one study of theirs, they had people indicate where they fell on the political spectrum from “Left-wing/Liberal” on one end to “Right-wing/Conservative” on the other. Then they had participants copy references of papers about concrete mixtures. What would you rather do on a Saturday night?

One group copied 10 of these references and another group only two. Making someone do this ten times over is a sure-fire way to make them bored. They then asked participants to again rate where they fell on the political spectrum—in essence, how committed were they to their particular ideology. People who had been made to be bored rated their commitment to a political ideology to be stronger. Even though this happened over a relatively short time span, people nevertheless reported feeling even more dedicated to their own beliefs whatever they were—left- or right-wing. In Van Tilburg and Igou’s terms, this indicates that boredom signals our need to find and make meaning. While copying down references to concrete, people felt a lack of meaning and were bored. As a result, they grasped at their political ideology as a way to re-establish a sense of meaning.

In other studies by the same authors, they have shown that when we are bored we are more likely to sink into nostalgic reverie, more likely to donate money to charities we believe in, and more likely to mete out stiffer punishments to people we see as not part of our in-group. All of these things are attempts to regulate meaning in the face of boredom. To make sense of our lives and who we are.

There is a potential vicious cycle here that is detrimental to positive engagement with politics—which, it should be said, has a significant influence on all our lives. If we see politics as boring, we drift away from it, dismissing it as monotonous and meaningless. Politicians see this and ramp up their game, shifting from lawmakers and policy wonks to entertainers. The noise of their bombast becomes so loud it is hard to make sense of it and we double down on our established ideologies—our established identities. The ultimate outcome is that we become more and more polarized, more and more incapable of listening to the opinions of others with an open mind.

To be sure, the polarization of opinions in politics is not solely a function of our boredom, but it can’t help. If we deepen our commitment to something we see as key to our identity, it becomes harder and harder to hear the opinions of others. And if we simply choose to disengage because the noise has become too much, then we are abdicating our responsibility to be active citizens.

Boredom is explicitly a self-focused feeling. I am bored. I do not see meaning in what is in front of me. I need something. I am lacking something. Boredom is all about me. If we respond to this by retreating further into ourselves, we will necessarily fail to appreciate the ideas and opinions of others. Politics is interesting. And it is important to our day-to-day lives. But when we fail to engage with politics, by either disengaging altogether or doubling down on a strident commitment to one side vs. the other, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We need to fight the negative pull of boredom to turn inwards, and choose instead to respond to boredom’s push to look outwards and engage with an open mind.

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