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We’d rather do something that requires mental effort than do nothing at all

Although much has been made of the aversiveness of effort, the study suggests that being bored is at least as unpleasant — if not more so

By | Emma Young |

The enforced downtime of the Christmas holidays can sometimes pose a conundrum. On the whole, we don’t much like to exert ourselves, so it’s nice not to have to do a lot. Effort is, well, effortful — and unless it offers adequate rewards, like money or fun, we tend to avoid it. But as the authors of new work in the Journal of Experimental Psychology point out, we don’t like to be bored, either. In fact, Raymond Wu at the University of British Columbia and colleagues find that although much has been made of the aversiveness of effort, being bored is at least as unpleasant — if not more so.

The team ran a pilot study plus 12 experiments (11 of them online, due to Covid restrictions) on a total of 2,311 participants. In almost all of the studies, the participants were repeatedly asked to choose between doing a specific task or doing nothing. They were clearly instructed that whatever they went for, the team would still gather useful data. And they were even encouraged to try out both options — but then to go with whichever they preferred. The number of trials varied across the experiments, from 25 to 100.

In six of the experiments, the participants had to choose between watching a blank screen or doing an addition task (in which they had to add a particular number to each of four numbers that were briefly presented on the screen). In two experiments, the choice was between a blank screen or doing a Stroop task (in which they had to name the font colour of various colour words; e.g. ‘red’ ’ was coloured blue, and the correct response was ‘blue’). In a further two experiments, participants had to repeatedly choose between either doing a Stroop task or watching the computer complete the task by itself. And in the last two experiments, the participants could opt to either count images, or simply view them.

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