How Do You Keep From Getting Bored? Researchers Have An Answer

Dec 27, 2016
Originally published on June 12, 2017 2:15 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right, I'm going to admit something that might get me in some hot water, but there are parts of parenting young kids that I find really boring. There, I said it. But it's true. You've got to read the same books every night. You've got to play the same games. I've got to eat chicken nuggets and broccoli every night. NPR's Shankar Vedantam is here to help me through the boredom of parenting. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: (Laughter). Hi, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. And I don't want anyone to get the impression that I don't love my children, and I appreciate all the time we spend, but it is hard. There are parts of parenting that are boring, and I need your help.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So what we're going to do now Rachel is we're going to read "Goodnight Moon" for the next three minutes over and over again to see if you can tolerate it. No, actually....

MARTIN: No, let's not do that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). So researchers are trying to figure out how satiation works in the brain. Now this work has lots of implications. Obviously, as a parent, you get bored with some aspects of parenting, and you want to know how to not be bored.

MARTIN: Yes.

VEDANTAM: If you're a marketer or a chef, it would be nice to not have customers get bored with the things that you make so that they're going to come back and buy those things over and over again.

MARTIN: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: I was speaking with Julio Sevilla. He's a marketing professor at the University of Georgia. What he did is he ran a series of experiments along with Barbara Kahn and Jiao Zhang. They had volunteers do a number of things. One thing they found is that a lot of satiation is actually happening in the mind. In your mind, Rachel, satiation is not just about what you've done, but about what you think you're going to do.

When volunteers feel that something they are doing at the present is going to be identical to something they will do in the future, they satiate more quickly in the here and now. But if they are told to imagine that they're going to experience variety in the future, they feel less satiated doing what they're doing in the present.

JULIO SEVILLA: When we tell them, OK, you're going to eat orange jelly beans right now, and then next week when you come back you're going to eat orange jellybeans again, then we find a high level of satiation. But in cases when you have them eat the orange jelly beans, if you tell them they're going to eat something different next week, for example Cherry jelly beans, then they satiate a little slower.

MARTIN: So maybe I'm missing something, but explain the connection between satiation and boredom.

VEDANTAM: So satiation really is the form of boredom. You know, when you're satiated with something, you really don't want to do it again. You're - when you read the same story to your kids over and over again, you get satiated with it because you're bored with it.

MARTIN: I think of being satiated as being content and satisfied, but not so in this context.

VEDANTAM: Yes. I think, in this context, it's really about saying, I really don't want to be doing this again. I've eaten a pizza. I've read "Goodnight Moon" 12 times; I really don't want to read it 13th time. And what this is saying is, if you can imagine tomorrow night reading a different story to them, then you will enjoy reading "Goodnight Moon" today a little bit more.

MARTIN: If I know there's variety in the future, I'm OK with monotony in the present.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, with all behavioral interventions, Rachel, because human beings are really complex, it's important to remember there are going to be exceptions to this rule. For example, Sevilla says this principle of thinking about variety might not be such a good idea in romantic relationships.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SEVILLA: In a romantic relationship, then you know that you're going to be with the same person. So in that case, maybe thinking about different people, for example, may actually tempt you. So I guess that may be an exception to this. But in our experiences, you know, like, food, entertainment, even work, et cetera, then thinking about variety is something positive because it's OK to just have variety in those domains in your life.

VEDANTAM: Not such a good idea to tell your spouse, I'm thinking about this hot movie star so I don't get bored with you.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Good advice. Shankar Vedantam, he regularly joins us to talk about social science research. Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.