Self-harming behavior may arise as a method of coping with boredom, results from a study to be published in Psychiatry Research suggests.
Studies of self-harming behavior estimate that between 13% and 41% of young people have on at least one occasion purposely injured their own bodies, often by scratching, cutting, hitting, or burning themselves. In laboratory studies, it has been observed that many people will voluntarily administer painful electrical shocks when doing so provides the only available option for distraction from boredom. One clinical perspective on the cause of self-harm is that it releases brain chemicals that improve mood, but it has been unclear whether this response is specific to boredom, or if it applies to other negative emotions as well.
A study led by Chantal Nederkoorn, of Maastricht University, sought to answer this question in a laboratory study examining the conditions under which people are willing to voluntarily give themselves electrical shocks. Sixty-nine Dutch undergraduate university students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, in which they spent one hour watching a film chosen to make them enter a given emotional state.
One third were induced with boredom by watching a continuous loop of the same 83-second clip of a table tennis game. One third were induced with sadness by watching a sad movie. The final third watched a documentary movie as a neutral control condition. In all conditions, participants first had electrodes attached to their arms, were given instructions for administering themselves electrical shocks, and were instructed that they were free to administer these shocks or not to do so.
People who watched the boring film shocked themselves much more frequently over the course of an hour than people who watched either the sad or the neutral film. The researchers also asked the participants whether they had engaged in self-harming behaviors in the past.
Bored participants self-administered more shocks than those in the other conditions even when they had no previous history of self-harm, but those who did have such a history shocked themselves significantly more often. Previous self-harmers subjected to boredom also gave themselves shocks after a shorter period of time, and chose to administer more intense shocks to themselves.
The study authors conclude that people administer shocks to themselves in response specifically to boredom, and not in response to negative emotional states in general. The observation that people with a previous history of self-harming behavior were more prone than others to cope with boredom by shocking themselves under laboratory conditions suggests that real-world self-harm may likewise have roots in coping with boredom.