When Bad Looks Good: Boredom and the Pursuit of Negative Experience
Shane Bench & Heather Lench
We propose that boredom motivates people to seek out and pursue alternative experiences. Essentially, boredom serves as a signal that the current goal pursuit or activity is no longer satisfying (i.e., no longer eliciting intense emotional responses) and prompts people to engage in other activities. We hypothesized that this motivation to pursue new goals and experiences would be so compelling that bored people would engage in anti-hedonic choice. Motivational hedonism, a core tenet of most decision making models and motivation theories, holds that the ultimate goal of behavior is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. This investigation explored if a negative experience would be chosen over a more positive experience, and whether boredom and the associated desire for novelty motivate anti-hedonic choice.
In Study 1, boredom was elicited by viewing neutral images for long periods of time (about 8 minutes total). Participants were then offered a choice of viewing images similar to what they had just viewed or hedonically negative images (e.g., cockroaches). Overall, 55% of participants chose to view the negative images rather than neutral images. State boredom predicted choice, such that participants who experienced more intense boredom after the image task were more likely to choose the negative image set. In Study 2, participants were assigned to a high boredom condition (viewed neutral images for an extended period of time) versus low boredom condition (viewed images for short periods of time). Then participants were given a choice to view either novel neutral images or novel negative images. Participants were more likely to choose the negative images in the high versus low boredom conditions, and this relationship was mediated by reported desire for novelty. Study 3 explored whether boredom would cause people to choose hedonically worse options when they had multiple novel options available. Participants were assigned to view lengthy series that were either intensely positive, moderately positive, moderately negative, or intensely negative. Participants in all conditions reported being equally bored. They were then given four choices of image sets to view next - intensely positive, moderately positive, intensely negative, moderately negative. Almost a quarter (22%) of participants chose an image set that was hedonically worse than the one that elicited boredom. Further, participants in the positive conditions reported a greater desire for negative experiences than participants in the negative conditions. This desire predicted choice of image set, with a stronger desire for negative experiences predicting a greater likelihood of choosing a hedonically worse experience.
These findings support theoretical arguments that boredom creates a “seeking state,” motivating people to seek out new situations and stimuli.