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Study finds boredom can lead to political extremism

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New research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology has found a link between boredom and political extremism.

“Boredom puts people on edge: It makes them seek engagements that are challenging, exciting, and that offer a sense of purpose. Political ideologies can aid this existential quest,” wrote Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg of King’s College London and Eric Igou of the University of Limerick in their study.

The researchers’ previous study found that boring activities can trigger a sense of meaninglessness in people, along with a corresponding desire to “reinject meaningfulness in their lives.”

“Boredom motivates people to alter their situation and fosters the engagement in activities that seem more meaningful than those currently at hand,” van Tilburg and Igou explained in their new study. Their research suggests that adopting a more extreme political ideology is one way that people reinject meaningfulness into a boring situation.

The study’s findings were based on one experiment and two scientific surveys.

In their initial experiment, van Tilburg and Igou recruited 97 people from a university campus in Ireland. The participants first indicated their political orientation (whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative) before being randomly assigned to complete a very boring task or a less boring task.

Those assigned to the high boredom group transcribed 10 references about concrete mixing, while those assigned to the low boredom group only had to transcribe two of these references. After completing the boring tasks, the researchers had the participants describe their political orientation once again. However, this time the participants indicated their political orientation on a seven-point scale.

The researchers found that liberals in the low boredom group were more moderate in their political self-identification, compared to liberals in the high boredom group. (This effect was not found for conservatives. But this could be because the experiment had very few conservative participants, and was therefore statistically underpowered.)

To expand on these findings, van Tilburg and Igou conducted a survey of 859 people living in Ireland. The survey found that people who are easily bored tended to endorse more extreme political views. Another survey of 300 Irelanders found that being prone to boredom was associated with searching for meaning in life, which was in turn associated with political extremism.

“These studies show that political views are, in part, based on boredom and the need to counteract these negative, existential experiences with ideologies that seem to provide meaning in life,” Igou explained in a university press release.

So can we simply blame political extremism on boredom? Not quite. Though boredom appears to play a role in the political climate, it is unclear how big of a role it plays.

“Political orientations, or the political climate in general, is of course a complex phenomenon influenced by many variables,” van Tilburg told PsyPost in an email. “Our research tested and found that boredom is one of them, but we do not fully test how big its role is.”

“Importantly, it may well be that the importance of boredom in context of the political climate varies across contexts. For example, when there are other very strong factors in play then the influence of boredom may be overshadowed, and vice versa.”

“To gain more insight into the magnitude of boredom’s role one could test, say, how voters behave in an election and see how that correlates with individual differences in boredom,” van Tilburg told PsyPost. “At present, we do not have such data but this is obviously an interesting future direction for researchers who study boredom and/or voting behavior.”

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