It will be a long time before we understand what exactly the pandemic lock down has changed us. Will we be more socially awkward? Will we start to store some canned food and toilet paper in case of emergency? Will it always feel super weird from now on to get on an airplane? In the meantime, for those of us still under stay-at-home orders, we continue to bake bread and scrape the bottom of the Netflix watchlist to stave off boredom and maintain some sort of basic sanity.
There’s perhaps a tacit understanding that boredom isn’t good. We’re uncomfortable when we are aware of our boredom. But there may be a much more insidious impact to our collective languor.
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology aimed to answer the question, what are the psychological reasons why some people enjoy harming others without any evident gain? Sadistic aggression – feeling pleasure from harming others – has long been a bit of a mystery to social scientists. Why would it possibly feel good to cause pain to another?
Because boredom is an unpleasant psychological state, researchers hypothesized that boredom may increase the change of sadistic behavior. Using questionnaires, they found that people who experienced chronic boredom in their daily lives showed more sadistic tendencies than their less bored counterparts.
Alarmingly, those who experienced greater boredom reported a higher chance of experiencing the fantasy of shooting another human being for fun.Moving to cyber-sadism (brutal internal trolling), they also found a strong statistically significant association between trolling and boredom. Anecdotally, this seems to check out as well. Social media is sort of a hellish void for bored people to say mean things.
In total, they conducted nine unique experiments, which ultimately revealed that boredom can actually motivate people to harm others for the purpose of experiencing pleasure.
I think this is important for several reasons. First, on a societal level, given the persistence of online trolling, parental aggression, and other types of sadistic behaviors, we may be able to reduce aggression by being more thoughtful about curbing boredom.
On a more individual level, I think this is a good reminder for us all to be a bit more kind to ourselves throughout the pandemic. I know that sounds a mushy, but the truth is, we don’t really know how isolation and quarantine may change how we think. We may be scared of our own thoughts sometimes. It’s like we’re all in some sort of twisted mind game and we don’t know even know what the rules are.
Whatever we are all feeling right now might not immediately make sense to us. We’re all confused and irrational. And that’s okay. Besides, having compassionate to ourselves and extending that compassion to others is really the only tenable choice.