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Boredom and politics: Who is most likely to break physical distancing rules?

illustration of two people being physically distanced, seen from aboveShare on Pinterest
New research looks into the psychological factors that may cause a person to break physical distancing rules. Boris SV/Getty Images
  • A recent study finds that conservative people who are bored were more likely to disobey early COVID-19 physical distancing rules.
  • The researchers consider boredom to be a state that makes a person want to recover a sense of agency.
  • The study suggests that the messaging around physical distancing would have been more successful if it had emphasized things an individual can do, rather than what they cannot do.

A new study for the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, suggests that people who are conservative and bored derived a sense of purpose from ignoring mask-wearing and physical distancing rules during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While previous research found that people who are bored are more likely to violate public health rules, the new study finds this to be even more true of those who are bored and politically conservative.

According to psychologist James Danckert, senior author of the study, “Boredom threatens our need to make meaning out of life, and some things, such as politics, can strengthen our sense of identity and meaning.”

Public health recommendations during the pandemic serve as what the study terms “a call to action” for a bored conservative. Professor Danckert says:

“Many public health measures, such as wearing a mask or getting a vaccine, have become highly politicized. People who find these measures a threat to their identity, and who suffer from boredom a lot, find breaking the rules helps them reestablish a sense of meaning and identity.”

The study appears in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

According to the study, “Our desire to avoid boredom may be borne of our need to experience agency.” From this point of view, considering that the constraints on behavior prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic “explicitly diminish our sense of agency,” they are “fertile grounds” for boredom.

The study discusses two types of such boredom. “Trait boredom” is the term for boredom arising from a personality prone to feeling that way. “State boredom” is an in-the-moment reaction to specific external circumstances. Though products of different stimuli — one’s emotional makeup versus situational factors — both result in a desire to escape through action, and more specifically, through the reassertion of agency.

State boredom arises from monotony, or a sense that what we are doing is meaningless.

The authors of the study assert that boredom serves a self-regulatory purpose by spurring us to correct an unsatisfactory situation by prompting a desire for some kind of action.

The researchers recruited 924 participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. Of these, 386 were female, 530 were male, and eight responded as “other.”

While participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 77 years, the average age was 37.7 years, and most were from the United States. They completed the surveys during the early days of the pandemic, between April 28 and May 2, 2020.

The survey questioned individuals regarding their economic and social-political leanings, from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” Other questions captured their proneness for trait boredom. Finally, participants reported the degree to which they followed physical distancing rules in the week before the survey.

The researchers hypothesize that those with trait boredom more often experience state boredom. Therefore, the effect of trait boredom on behavior could also be interpreted as being the result of state boredom, “with trait boredom proneness standing in as a proxy for state boredom.”

The study found that boredom was most strongly associated with social conservatism and slightly less so with fiscal conservatism. Strong social conservatives were also those most likely to break physical distancing rules.

The study authors suggest that public health messaging that presents things one can do — as opposed to listing things one cannot do, creating a loss of agency — may be a more successful strategy to embrace going forward.

In addition, the researchers point out the implicit behavior critique embedded in the messaging in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Danckert says:

”Many of the restrictions have become heavily politicized, and much of the messaging from governments has focused on personal responsibility. But this can become fingerpointing and blaming, and most of us recoil from that. What we need is to promote our shared values — the things we all have in common and the positive things we can get back if we all pull together.”

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