How bored do you have to be to give yourself a nasty electric shock? Not very, according to a new study on boredom that was actually quite interesting.
The study, reported in the current edition of Psychiatry Research, was conducted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, a country with a reputation for having plenty of things to do to avoid boredom. Nonetheless, researchers, led by Dr. Chantal Nederkoorn of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, tested 69 students (reportedly 19 percent were men – apparently psychologists aren’t adept at math) on how they deal with boredom.
Participants watched three films while wired to machines that allowed them to give themselves electrical shocks of varying intensities in response to emotions or physical states caused by the films. One movie was a sad tale about a girl needing a bone marrow transplant. Another was a documentary about the Nobel Prize winning memory researcher Eric Kandel. The last was an 83-second segment from the documentary played repeatedly for an hour – the boring film. Questionnaires filled out after the viewings confirmed that the films made the students sad, neutral or bored.
The observations on the shocking were unexpectedly shocking. Students shocked themselves the same amount of times during the sad and the documentary films. However, the number and intensity of the self-administered shocks (up to the highest setting of a painful but not deadly 20 milliamps) increased dramatically during the boring film.
The students had also been questioned on any history of self-harm and the study found that those answering “yes” shocked themselves earlier and with more intensity (up to ten times greater) and frequency than those with no prior inclination to self-harm.
Bored? That could be a warning sign. The researchers say the results match statistics on people who harm themselves and boredom is a often given as a cause of suicidal thoughts. The study, while limited in scope, has implications for prisons where inmates in solitary confinement are prone to self-harm.
If boredom can move college students to give themselves painful electrical shocks, be careful shaking hands at graduation.