Can boredom lead to cruelty?

Bored man.
Research suggests there is a link between boredom and sadism.

Why do some people seem to enjoy hurting others?


That’s a complicated question, but here’s one simple factor that is often overlooked – boredom.


A new study published in the Journal of School Psychology, bluntly titled ‘I enjoy hurting my classmates: On the relation of boredom and sadism in schools’, has found that students who are more often bored at school are more likely to engage in sadistic actions – that is, they are more likely to seek out pleasure by inflicting suffering on others.


It’s not just schoolchildren who are averse to boredom – us adults aren’t keen on it either. In one famous experiment, researchers asked participants to sit quietly in a lab room for 15 minutes. If they wanted, the participants could relieve their boredom by pushing a button that would give them an electric shock. Remarkably, almost half pressed the button at least once.


If we’re willing to inflict pain on ourselves to alleviate boredom, it’s not that surprising, then, that we may also be more inclined to do the same to others.


After conducting nine different experiments, the authors of a recent study concluded that boredom plays a ‘crucial role in the emergence of sadistic tendencies’.


For example, a survey they conducted found that more everyday boredom was associated with more sadism.


They also found in a study of people working in the US military, that bored soldiers were more likely to behave sadistically towards other soldiers.


In a study of internet behaviour, they found that bored people were more likely to engage in online trolling.


Importantly, they found boredom can also affect the behaviour of parents. The researchers asked parents if they sometimes enjoyed making jokes at the expense of their child, or if they had even enjoyed physically hurting them. When parents did admit to sadistic behaviour, it was more likely to be reported by parents who felt bored when caring for their kids.



Online troll.
Bored people are more likely to engage in online trolling.

The researchers then conducted an experiment to see if they could make people more sadistic by getting them to do something boring.


In an experiment involving 129 people, one group of people were asked to watch a boring 20-minute film of a waterfall; the other group watched a 20-minute documentary. Participants in both groups were told that while watching the film, they were free to do something unusual – kill worms trapped in a modified coffee grinder (in reality, the worms could not be killed as the machine was fake, but participants didn’t know this).


The vast majority of people didn’t shred the worms, but 13 did. Of the 13, all but one were in the group asked to watch the boring waterfall video.


Why? What’s going on here? The obvious answer, the researchers concluded, is this kind of behaviour is motivated by a desire for a little novelty and excitement. When people are bored and have nothing else to do, they are more likely to behave sadistically simply to relieve feelings of boredom. Furthermore, the researchers found this to be true even of people who do not ordinarily have a sadistic nature.


Of course, none of this means boredom alone is going to turn someone into the next Jeffrey Dahmer. All kinds of other factors – inherent personality traits, childhood experiences, environmental influences – play a role in the development of sadistic tendencies.


Nor does it mean that boredom is always a bad thing – it’s not. Boredom has been linked to greater creativity and problem-solving. It can push us out of our comfort zone, driving us to embrace meaningful and engaging activities.


However, we need to be careful as to how we respond to boredom. Boredom can be a warning sign, the brain’s way of signalling that we’re under-stimulated and need to take action. Do we respond by taking positive action that is purposeful and engaging?


Or do we respond by taking negative action – for example, by making fun of someone, by cutting them down to size, by unfairly complaining about others’ apparent shortcomings?


It’s up to us.

(First published in Southern Star on 30/3/2023)