People prone to boredom less able to judge short intervals of time

It’s no wonder they get bored. According to psychologists James Danckert and Ava-Ann Allman at the University of Waterloo in Canada, time really does pass more slowly for people who are prone to boredom. The researchers came to this conclusion after finding people prone to boredom were less accurate at estimating the duration of intervals lasting from two seconds to a minute, than were people not prone to boredom.

Four hundred and seventy-six undergrads completed a 28-item questionnaire designed to measure boredom proneness, rating their agreement or not with statements like “Having to watch someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously”. From this, the 20 most and least boredom prone students were selected.

The remaining participants then completed a measure of their ability to rapidly reallocate their attention from one instant to the next, which required them to watch a computer monitor and note the appearance of one or two letters that appeared in streams of numbers. The brain’s limited attentional resources mean that if a second letter appeared too soon (typically within 200 to 500 ms) after the first, it would be more likely to go unnoticed – this is called the attentional blink. The participants then watched a series of illusory motion displays that showed a dot appearing to move around in a circle, and they had to say in each case how long in seconds the movement had lasted.

The size of the attentional blink was no larger in the participants prone to boredom than it was in the control participants, suggesting they were just as capable of refocusing their attention from one instant to the next. However, the boredom prone individuals were significantly less accurate at judging the duration of the illusory motion, particularly tending to overestimate its length.

The researchers said “If one’s subjective experience indicates that a task (say, reading an article on boredom) has taken less time than has really passed, that individual may be more motivated to continue reading and may in turn report the experience as a pleasant one…In other words, perhaps the reason time flies when we’re having fun is because this perception allows us to maintain attention for longer periods, which in turn allows us to see things through to completion, and perhaps results in more positive affect and enjoyment of the task itself”.

Danckert, J.A. & Allman, A.A. (2005). Time flies when you’re having fun: Temporal estimation and the experience of boredom. Brain and Cognition, 59, 236-245.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.