Boredom as a threat to agency and why Erich Fromm was wrong - with Video!

Dr. James Danckert

Boredom is an all-too-familiar feeling for many of us – especially as we navigate a global pandemic and are discouraged from engaging in many of the activities we normally would.

The feeling and function of boredom was explored in fascinating detail by Dr. James Danckert, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, during his talk “Boredom as a threat to agency and why Erich Fromm was wrong.” Over 90 attendees tuned into this CCSAW Seminar from across North America, Europe, Brazil and Spain.

German social psychologist Erich Fromm famously said “Man is the only animal that can be bored…Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape.”

Yet, given the opportunity, animals kept in barren cages will attempt to solve their boredom problem given the opportunity, but not always in an adaptive manner. Meagher and Mason found that mink housed in non-enriched cages were more likely to interact with presented stimuli – including aversive stimuli (eg. predator scent or handling glove) compared to mink housed in enriched cages. They’ve replicated this work three times.

Boredom, Danckert says, is call to action. Its purpose is to cause us to act and relieve the feeling. It pushes us to do something more rewarding and satisfying than what we are doing currently – presuming we (or animals) have something to do. Doing something maladaptive, given the choice, is shown not only in mink but in people. Wilson et al. asked study participants to sit in a room with nothing to do, except the option of administering themselves an electric shock. By the end of the fifteen minutes, nearly everyone had self-administered a shock and one man shocked himself 190 times!

People also break rules when bored. Boylan et al. has shown that, during COVID-19 restrictions, highly boredom prone people have been more likely to break the rules of social isolation in a variety of ways, including poor adherence to social-distancing.

Danckert challenges Fromm’s idea that only humans experience boredom and believes that many animals experience boredom as a challenge to their own efficacy, just like humans, so that they may act to demonstrate their agency.

But do animals need meaning? Do they need the changes that they engage in to mean something, to be more rewarding? This question he leaves with all of us.

Dive deeper into why we and animals feel boredom! Watch the seminar video here.

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