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[00:00:05]

Hey there, it's Stephen Dubner, it's been about a year since the pandemic took over our lives. For many of us, that has meant a year of broken routines, missed opportunities, and, let's face it, boredom. So this week, we've decided to play for you an episode from our archive that unpacks the science of boredom.

[00:00:25]

It features an early appearance from someone who may now be familiar to you, Angela Duckworth, co-host of our spin off podcast No Stupid Questions. This episode is called Am I Boring You? And it begins right now.

[00:00:51]

About 100 years ago, around the time of the First World War, there was a growing concern in Britain about working conditions in factories, mines and elsewhere. Here's how the historian Anthony Wall described working conditions during the Victorian era for industrial workers. The working day men early starts long hours and often physically demanding labor in conditions that would have challenged even the strongest constitutions to start work at 6:00 a.m., perhaps after walking through sleet or rain and to continue at it all day in overheated, drafty or ill ventilated workrooms meant for many a slow process of physical decline or a life lived continuously on the brink of exhaustion.

[00:01:35]

This exhaustion was worrisome for the workers, of course, but also for their employers and for Britain because exhaustion presumably meant lower productivity and nobody wanted that.

[00:01:48]

So Britain forms the Industrial Fatigue Research Board. That is so British. Yeah, right.

[00:01:56]

It's soon after the war. And even in its name, you can see the focus is really on fatigue. They're trying to figure out the limitations of assembly line production workers kind of early on. They they think fatigue is the main limitation.

[00:02:10]

That's Amanda Marki. We'll meet her more formally in a bit. The Industrial Fatigue Research Board, she tells us, hired a psychologist named Stanley Wyatt.

[00:02:18]

And for him, he actually starts by looking at how differences in temperature affect productivity, why it didn't find much there in the temperature idea.

[00:02:25]

So he started talking with assembly line workers about the repetitive tasks they did all day.

[00:02:31]

And he finds that it's really not fatigue. That's the limiting factor of production. It's it's boredom. Up to that point, Markey says the causes and consequences of boredom hadn't really been studied, what effect it might have, for instance, on the economy.

[00:02:49]

The word boredom actually doesn't even start occurring in the English language until the 18th century. It's pretty clearly on the scene.

[00:02:56]

Yeah, and once it comes into the language, kind of quickly takes off and it comes with the rise of industrialization and also with the rise of leisure time. So there's kind of like a burst of research at the very beginning on assembly line workers looking at boredom, but then funding dries up and unsurprising and so does the research.

[00:03:15]

Amanda Markey is so interested in boredom that she wrote her PhD dissertation in economics on the topic.

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There were still a lot of gaps in the literature. So on this episode of Freakonomics Radio, boredom, boredom, boredom, the concept of boredom is boredom.

[00:03:33]

Somehow an economic concept, boredom as a way to signal that you're mismanaging scarce resources. And of course, scarcity is just at the foundation of economics.

[00:03:43]

Is there perhaps an upside to boredom?

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Boredom is useful because you don't want an organism who just does the same thing over and over again without learning anything. And if I ask you to just sit there. For a while and do nothing but think. Will you get bored? And what will you do to alleviate that boredom, astounding percentage of people hate sitting there thinking so much that they'll start shocking themselves.

[00:04:25]

This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your host, Stephen Dubner. Amanda Maki did not mean to get bit by the board bug. This is kind of embarrassing. I support her researcher, but I'm hardly ever bored.

[00:04:54]

While studying behavioral economics at Carnegie Mellon University, Mercè was looking around for a research topic and our professor George Loewenstein was listing a series of topics he felt like hadn't gotten enough attention.

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Things like privacy or the way some people collect expertize about something like wine, the way other people collect physical goods and also boredom.

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And the more I looked into it, the more I found it was really fertile ground.

[00:05:24]

These days, Amanda Markey makes her living as an algebra teacher in New York City, which, depending on how you feel about algebra, makes her an automatic boredom expert in any case.

[00:05:33]

The fact is that psychologists have yet to really land on a clear, universally accepted definition of boredom and what causes it.

[00:05:40]

Is it a lack of novelty, the absence of meaningful engagement?

[00:05:45]

Or maybe it's a somewhat useful dormant state. But here's what experts do know about boredom.

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OK, so there are two types of boredom. There's trait boredom and state boredom.

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State boredom is being bored in the moment, as in this movie is boring. This party is boring. This podcast is boring. Please, God, no.

[00:06:08]

And then there's great boredom, boredom as the question of are you the type of person who's likely to experience boredom?

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That is, are you someone who's routinely bored no matter what you're doing? Again, Markit points out that boredom research isn't all that far along. But earlier studies have at least shown that boredom is associated with a lot of negative things.

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Boredom is associated with depression. It's associated with loneliness, gambling, drinking, dropping out of school.

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Now, saying that boredom is associated with those things doesn't tell us if boredom causes them. It could be that loneliness is boring, the depression is boring, that you get bored once you drop out of school.

[00:06:49]

There is, however, some evidence to suggest that people really can't stand to be bored by Dan Gilbert, Dan Gilbert here.

[00:06:56]

Steven Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychology professor. He mentioned some research he had conducted on the disengaged mind.

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If you're interested in boredom, yeah, you might be interested in an article that Tim Wilson and I published in Science.

[00:07:08]

Here's what Gilberton Wilson wanted to know.

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When people find themselves with nothing to do but think they have to entertain themselves with their own thoughts, is that a pleasant experience?

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To find out, the researchers recruited 55 undergrads, male and female. They put them in an unadorned room, one at a time, and expose them to a variety of positive and negative stimuli.

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A recording of guitar music, for instance, a color photograph of a cockroach. And a mild but still quite painful electric shock. The participants were then told to imagine they've been given five dollars, then they were asked whether they'd pay some of that money to not receive the shock. Again, the vast majority of them, 42 of the 55 students, said they would pay to not be shocked. And then Gilbert says each of those 42 students was left alone by themselves in this unadorned room.

[00:08:05]

And you tell them their job is just to think. But if they wanted to at any point, they could shock themselves again.

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And it turns out that an astounding percentage of people hate sitting there thinking so much that they'll start shocking themselves. One participant shocked himself one hundred and ninety times in 15 minutes.

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Now, granted, this was a very small and narrow experiment, but let's assume we take its findings at face value, that having nothing to do but think so unpleasant that some people would rather inflict pain on themselves to relieve their. Well, this is another assumption, but let's say it to relieve their boredom.

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If that's the case. I know. If, if, if.

[00:08:58]

But remember, it's still early days and boredom research if that is the case. Amanda Markey wondered, why have humans evolved with this peculiar emotion?

[00:09:08]

Most emotions in the world tell you, direct your attention to something, even if it's something negative. Right. Even like disgust says this is really important. Direct your attention. Boredom is really one of the few and maybe even the only emotions that says this isn't a good use of your time. Direct your attention to something else like get out of the situation.

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Maki and her professor, George Loewenstein, wondered if economics might have some explanation for why we get bored. They came up with what Loewenstein calls the scarce capacity theory of boredom.

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So you have mental resources, they're scarce and they're really important and valuable. And boredom develops as the signal that mental resources are not being used wisely. They're not being used on valuable pursuits. And a lot of this was based on I think you spoke with Angela Duckworth.

[00:09:54]

We did speak with Angela Duckworth. She is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on education. Duckworth used to be like Amanda.

[00:10:03]

Markee is now a schoolteacher. I taught math. Yeah.

[00:10:06]

Duckworth and some colleagues created a model for thinking about emotions that might help explain boredom.

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If you ask a simple question why we have emotions, the answer seems to be that evolution give us emotions for survival. So fear is useful, anxiety is useful, and even boredom is useful because you don't want an organism who just does the same thing over and over again without learning anything. It would be good to equip that organism with an emotion and urge to move on when they don't think that they're learning anything new.

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The argument is that we're constantly doing a sort of cost benefit analysis of how to spend our mental energy. Consider a student in the classroom bored.

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My guess about boredom is that the thought that kind of goes through a kid's head, whether it be conscious or not, is the idea that I am not learning anything right now that I care about. And so I think actually kids are in a way, like little economists who are weighing the costs and benefits of what they're doing. And when the calculus seems to favor not paying attention to what the teacher's saying or not doing their homework, then that's what they do.

[00:11:14]

I think in a way they're very rational.

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The premise of that theory is that boredom is a way to signal that you're mismanaging scarce resources.

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That's Amanda Marki again. And of course, scarcity is just the foundation of economics. They actually also say that how you judge the value of what you're doing is not only based on what you're doing, but it's also based on opportunity cost.

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As in there are other, more interesting, more valuable things I could be doing with my time. Mercè and her colleagues wanted to test this scarce capacity theory. First, they needed a reliable way to induce boredom in the laboratory.

[00:11:52]

So our first challenge was just having something to give lab participants in order to make them bored.

[00:11:59]

In earlier boredom studies, Markey says researchers came up with makeshift ways to bore the participants. You'd have to rate the same two letters of the alphabet over and over, or watch a video of people doing their laundry.

[00:12:11]

And none had really been validated to ensure that they actually do induce boredom and also really importantly, don't induce other emotions because you don't want to test that induces both boredom and anger. So Maki and her fellow researchers came up with a series of boring seeming tasks and began testing them to find the boring list of the boring, which was fun because everyone has an opinion on the most boring situation.

[00:12:37]

And one guy said the worst job he ever had was working at a bank and having to match signatures. And he said it was just the worst job because they always matched. So we did a signature matching task based off of his experience. I have to say, when I tried your signature matching task, I got so bored that I stopped. Maki and her team even produced their own boring video.

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I've been asked to tell you about my day yesterday.

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They hired an actor to play the part of an office worker who sells cardstock. I guess it's important to let you know that I work for a company that borders office supplies for other companies and it was a pretty low budget production.

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He talks about his day and what he had for breakfast and how cardstock prices are controlled by the weather.

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I really see I'm super interested in that card stock prices are controlled by the weather because of tree growth or something or helping or, you know, I. I don't think we did any homework whatsoever to look at the validity, and then we thought maybe the video would be too interesting because you'd have this person to look at. So we also did an audio version to see if radio is particularly boring and which induced more boredom.

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The video of the cardstock script or the audio of the cartoon, you know, slightly more for the video, but not significantly different.

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But audio is slightly less boring than video. You're saying I am saying that this is good news for those of us who make audio. You realize the ammunition you're giving us here. You realize how I can exploit this and blow it out of proportion.

[00:14:10]

Do you want me to repeat it? Sure. With an exclamation point. After each task, the participants were asked questions to judge their level of boredom. For instance, did it seem like time was passing slower than usual? And did you feel bored? Under this system? One task emerged as the most boring of all.

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OK, so the most boring task that we came up with is turning pegs or turning cogs.

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This task was borrowed from an old experiment that? S lab subjects to turn little wooden pegs. Maki and her colleagues modified the task for a computer. So specifically, what we had participants do is there were eight circles on a screen and every time they would click, it would rotate it a quarter turn. So they would rotate the first peg and then they'd move to the second peg. And once they finished the eight pegs, they'd start all over again.

[00:15:06]

Participants turn the pegs, the screen resets, repeat, repeat. So it has this kind of Sisyphean element. Now, they had a quantifiably reliable way to make people bored. Marcie Lowenstein could test the scarce capacity theory of boredom. If boredom is a signal that a task isn't worth doing, what if they made the task a little bit more worthwhile? One obvious way was to use money.

[00:15:34]

We paid people a piece rate in terms of how many pegs they're turning now.

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The stakes, we should say, were tiny. The researchers randomly split the participants in half. One group would earn just a half cent per peg turned and the other got two and a half cents. The most anyone could earn was eight dollars, but people had to turn the pegs for several hours. They click, they turn, the screen resets, they click and turn some more.

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And when you pay people more, sure enough, their level of boredom goes down. So that was one manipulation that we figured was very straightforward, but surprisingly hadn't been done before.

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Another intervention was to make the task more challenging. So we made the pegs a lot smaller and they kind of darted around. So you had to chase them?

[00:16:16]

Yeah, you had me at dart around it. Now it sounds like a game instead of task. We turned that game off a little bit, so that effectively reduces boredom.

[00:16:24]

Now, the researchers wanted to look at people's boredom levels when they thought they were being watched.

[00:16:28]

We told them that they were going to be monitored. So this was a lie. They weren't monitored in any way. But I mean. Oh, yeah, we told them you're going to be monitored by different judges. They're going to watch your performance for about ten seconds, and then they're going to give you a rating. So we found that reduced boredom, but we also did a manipulation check because we wanted to see, like, did you really think that someone was watching you?

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So we asked them at the very end of the study and we said, you know, you got these ratings. Do you think there was a real person observing you? And the vast majority of our sample said no. And yet we still see the reduction in boredom. And then that's yeah, it's really interesting to address this.

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We we thought, well, maybe we'll just give them objective feedback. So we made a little chart in the corner and every five seconds it would update on real time. And this did reflect how many pegs you were turning and you kind of saw this line creeping up or it would flatten out if you stopped. And we found that was really effective at reducing boredom as well.

[00:17:27]

But as Murky and her colleagues ran more experiments, there were things they expected to find, things that should prove the scarce capacity theory that they did not find in one manipulation, for instance, they thought they could make the pig turning task less boring by telling participants that there was an altruistic angle. I really wanted this to work and I tried it numerous times and it just I just couldn't get it to work. So at first we just told people like, we want to study assembly line workers and your work will really help us better understand and make conditions better for assembly line workers.

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No effect. And that was all just verbal. Then we said we want to help children with ADHD. And we had a picture of a child on the screen and said, you know, like your work on this task is just going to really help us better understand ADHD and attention. And we were really hoping that these altruistic interventions of helping other people would make a difference.

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And, you know, it it just didn't.

[00:18:22]

Then the researchers tried to add some opportunity cost to this boring task subject sitting at the computer, were instructed to open their email program in the second tab, and then the researchers sent the subjects an email.

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And we were hoping what this would do is it would make the task more boring because you kind of have this other thing tugging at your mind.

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And we didn't find that it made it more boring, which left them puzzled according to the scarce capacity theory, adding something more interesting to do should make the task even less engaging. On the other hand, adding the altruism should make the task more engaging or less boring. This all makes George Loewenstein wonder if his scarce capacity theory really does help explain boredom. It might, he told us. It's just that he and his colleagues haven't been able to prove it yet.

[00:19:14]

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, the relationship between happiness, sex and boredom, whether retirement leads to boredom.

[00:19:23]

But first, we hear what you Freakonomics Radio listeners have to say about boredom.

[00:19:28]

Hello, Freakonomics Radio. My name is Margaret. I am 20 years old and I am from Boston, Massachusetts.

[00:19:34]

My name is Ted Schmitt's. I'm 27. I'm a valet in Arizona.

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I really feel like I never really have time to be bored by it in places that I've seen like a huge increase in anxiety or depression.

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So what actually happens is if I find a time when I'm bored, I have this panic attack. I don't know what to do with myself. I'm 65 years old and I suspect that you're not going to find many people my age who are bored. I really just want to be OK with being bored again. The older you get, the less bored you are because time just goes away.

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Hi, my name is Sabrina. I'm bored because I'm lazy. I don't even understand the concept of boredom anymore. As an adult, I think the poor people will be the young ones.

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I live in Bozeman, Montana, and I am eleven years old.

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Hyper Economics. My name is Ryan. I'm twenty eight. I live in New York City.

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I ever felt bored. I would probably just jump for joy.

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I've come to realize now I have three years sober, which I only mentioned because I used to think that in part I was getting high and drinking because I was bored. But in sobriety I've come to see an important, as is growing up, that boredom is a B.S. cover up word for loneliness. There's no such thing as boredom. You are you asked about boredom, I'm just coming off of a long spell, I have a restaurant and it's in the middle of Florida, but my family moves to the beach every summer.

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And when I'm at the beach, I'm just bored out of my mind, like, oh, you can do is sit at the beach or swim at the beach, play with the kids a little bit. And I feel terrible because I know that I should be happy that I have a beach house and I'm at the beach all summer. But it gets really, really boring and I'm not going to do it again next year. I'm going to come up with a plan.

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I don't know what that plan is going to be, but I'm going to have some sort of plan where I'm not bored all summer out of my mind with nothing to do. My name is Satchel and I'm forty seven years old. What makes you bored, one way to answer that question is to ask a different question for which there are better data. What makes you happy and unhappy? Presumably the stuff that makes us unhappy might also make us bored.

[00:22:14]

Dan Gilbert, the psychologist who likes to give his research subjects electric shocks. He's done a lot of happiness research. He and his colleague Matt Killingsworth looked at data from more than 2000 adults who said how happy they were during certain activities.

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When you look at what people are doing and what they're thinking and how they're feeling as they go about living their everyday, normal lives, you find that people are obviously very happy when they're doing things like eating or having sex. They're not very happy when they're doing things like working or commuting.

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And what about when they're just resting like Satchel Ray hanging out on the beach in Florida?

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The answer is about as unhappy as when they're working or commuting. But if you ask people what they see themselves doing when they retire, most of them talk about some version of rest.

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Rest is the wrong answer. And we even know why from these data, when people rest, their minds wander. And when the mind wanders, it doesn't usually go to a happy place. People who are engaged in an activity are almost always happier than people who are not. So any retirement plan that doesn't have you engaged in activities is probably not one that's going to make you happy.

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So does this mean we need to rethink retirement, too?

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I'm kind of in a staged retirement and will be playing a little bit more golf, I think, than I have.

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That's Robert Willis, professor of economics at the University of Michigan.

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For over a decade, he directed the National Institute on Aging Health and Retirement Study, or HRC, which is a very large longitudinal study that's designed to follow people and their spouses from the time they enter the study in their early 50s until they die. And it collects data on a wide range of economic health, psychological family and other kinds of variables.

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The address is nationally representative with data on about twenty thousand people so far, and it's conducted in a way that lets researchers measure the impact of retirement at different ages.

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The address is also the model for similar studies in many other countries, which makes for good international comparisons.

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The intent all the way along was to kind of ensure that the data sets were as close as possible.

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If you look at international retirement ages in the late 1950s, Willis says, you won't notice much variance.

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The labor force participation rates of older men were very similar across all of the European countries in the United States, Japan and so forth.

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We're talking here about men aged 60 to 65. But fast forward to the 1990s.

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And now there's a big split so that in Japan, labor force participation rate remained really quite high and the U.S. participation had fallen some, but not dramatically.

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But in some countries, most notably the Netherlands and Belgium, male participation rates at those ages fallen from something on the order of about 70 percent in the early period, down to about 20 percent by the mid 1990s.

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The difference was almost entirely accounted for, not by individuals choices about when to retire, but retirement policies.

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The U.S. has a relatively neutral system of taxes and pensions and the like in terms of how long people work. So, for example, the Social Security payments that you receive are higher if you delay retirement than if you retire as early as you can. In France, on the other hand, has a lot of strong incentives to retire early.

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And people, in fact, do retire quite a bit earlier than in the United States for a researcher.

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These differences create a sort of natural experiment that can be used to help understand how early retirement affects people. And that's exactly what Robert Willis and colleague the economist Susan Rotar decided to do. They wanted to learn about the relationship between retirement and mental cognition.

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Their instrument of choice was a memory test, the test that asks people to listen to a variety of very simple words.

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This is an exercise that's already built into those big longitudinal retirement studies, words like Bird and Tree, Lake Ami car truck and in Italy, France or Germany.

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There are, of course, words in Italian or French or German Camiel, which last but psychometric techniques have been used to make sure that they provide comparable measures of memory.

[00:26:55]

Bauen Alberto was Army Participants' here a list of words and are asked to immediately repeat the words to the person interviewing them witha Tree Militaire logo.

[00:27:05]

And then about five or ten minutes later in the interview, the interviewer will say, Oh, remember those words that I read to you a while back? How many of those can you repeat back to me now.

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And third is archtop Kamu and so the cognitive test we have is a memory test of immediate and delayed word recall.

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So what did Willison Ruyter find? The countries that had large that led people to retire early?

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There was a really quite substantial effect on people's cognitive ability in this memory domain, a downward effect that is study participants from the U.S. and other countries where older people are more likely to still work did much better than participants from countries like France and Italy, where older adults are less likely to work. American participants, for instance, scored nearly twice as well as Spanish participants in the U.S. More than 20 percent of people over the age of 64 are still in the workforce.

[00:28:06]

In Spain, only 2.5 percent of that age group are still working for pay. Willis calls this cognitive decline the mental retirement effect.

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The basic idea is that if you exercise your mind and you're in a stimulating environment and you're motivated to use your mind, that you'll maintain your cognitive abilities. Conversely, if you are an unstimulating environment, don't exercise your mind. The effect would be negative on cognition. So in that sense, it's very much like the idea that physical exercise leads to physical fitness.

[00:28:42]

Willis is fairly confident the effect is causal, that retirement leads to lower cognitive levels.

[00:28:49]

But as to the why, we don't really understand the underlying mechanisms very well. We asked Willis whether boredom might have anything to do with the mental retirement effect.

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I must confess that when you called me that I had not really thought about boredom, apart from occasionally thinking about my own boredom.

[00:29:07]

But he agreed that boredom is a plausible factor to explain the mental retirement effect. So he did some digging for us and he found that the rest, the health and retirement study, was already thinking about this. There was a boredom question.

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It's part of a series of psychological measures that participants are given every two years.

[00:29:24]

So it's during the past thirty days. To what degree did you feel bored? Not at all. A little moderately. Quite a bit. Very much.

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And keep in mind, this is a survey for. Older Americans, 50 and up, only about a quarter of these respondents reported feeling bored moderately to very much, very much, was only about three percent.

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So somebody who's really very bored, that's not a majority status by any means, but it's also a fairly significant number. Say they have experienced some boredom.

[00:29:53]

Willis got curious about the correlations he might find in these data.

[00:29:57]

And I discovered, for example, that being married people who are married are significantly less bored than people who are not married. So that kind of goes to the idea that part of boredom, at least, is a matter of interactions with others, probably in people who are not married, probably have fewer interactions with others. Education is an important variable, the less educated or substantially more bored than the well-educated. So people with less than high school have about 25 percent of them are bored and that falls to about 14 percent for the people with college degrees or graduate degrees.

[00:30:34]

Work status. There are about 20 percent support among workers and about 25 percent among non workers.

[00:30:40]

And because respondents take the survey every couple of years, Willis could see how their boredom answers changed after retirement.

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There's really quite a strong negative effect. That is, the people who were working in 2008 who subsequently did not work in 2012 were slightly more bored than they had been. On the other hand, the people who were working in 2008 who are continuing to work in 2012 had a substantial decline in boredom.

[00:31:18]

None of this surprised Willis very much, nor are these findings particularly robust. It's far from proving anything. So I wouldn't really want to go further than that.

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But it was consistent with his earlier research on the mental retirement effect and how that might be driven by a lack of stimulation, which naturally leads us to circle back to the question we began with today about worker productivity generally and how big of a problem boredom may be.

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We just don't know that much about how boredom affects people's productivity.

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That's Amanda Maki, the boredom researcher. Certainly there's the intuition that it's got to slow you down or make you browse the Internet or make you maybe do other things that aren't as helpful.

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We're thinking about a new project about the role of boredom in the economy. And that is Heather Schofield. I'm a development economist.

[00:32:13]

Schofield is at the University of Pennsylvania. She does a lot of work in India. And the new boredom research project she's thinking about concerns Indian farmers.

[00:32:23]

So you're very busy when you're planting things and you're very busy when you're harvesting.

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But agriculture being seasonal, there's also a lot of downtime.

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The ensuing boredom, Schofield says, may affect worker productivity, where people who basically don't have a lot going on, keeping them occupied and keeping their brain moving, go into something of a stupor and it becomes very hard to get anything done in that stupor, Schofield believes, can have a compounding effect.

[00:32:51]

There's actually very good data in agronomy saying if you eat your plants maybe twice or three times in the season instead of once, you'll actually increase your yields dramatically. But maybe you end up in this kind of mental retirement state because there's not a lot going on. And it's hard to get yourself out the door to weed the plants because you can always do it the next day. So basically then the idea is that this mental retirement or this boredom may actually in some ways decrease people's output even more.

[00:33:17]

And conversely, if you actually get people to work more and may crowd in labor rather than crowding out labor, which would be pretty surprising. So that is to say, if I get you to work more, it would actually make you work even more because it gets you out of the state of kind of boredom or mental retirement.

[00:33:34]

Heather Schofield doesn't know yet whether this is true and the research project she wanted to do with Indian farmers. It never made it past the pilot stage. The logistics were too challenging. Still, her theory makes sense, doesn't it, that boredom can feed on itself and make you even more bored, just as productivity can also feed on itself. So if there's even a slight chance that boredom does lower productivity, shouldn't we think about alleviating boredom in the workplace?

[00:34:03]

I think there are probably some really cheap interventions that you could do. Amanda Marki, you will recall, ran all those experiments trying to reduce boredom by paying people by turning their boring task into a game. What ideas does she have for fighting workplace boredom?

[00:34:20]

One would be a competition and recognition. We actually haven't tested competition, but I imagine what that does is it, you know, all of a sudden now you're kind of doing a different task because you're trying to do it as fast and quickly and efficiently as possible. So I think that would be pretty effective.

[00:34:36]

But remember, Markey now teaches algebra.

[00:34:39]

I think I would go with totally game of find a school like always having that progress bar in terms of are you learning, are you not, how do you compare with others? And I think this would achieve the short term goal of having students learn subjects. I really worry, though, if it's going to make kind, hard working, persistent students, which is ultimately what we want.

[00:35:04]

Angela Duckworth, the PEN psychologist who used to teach high school math, argues that boredom, for all its obvious downsides, may serve a useful purpose.

[00:35:14]

We need that feedback to say like, hey, you might not be learning very much right now. You know, notice that you feel this boredom and then see where that thinking leads you, you know. Now, what do you think now that you've realized that you're bored and what do you think is really going on?

[00:35:27]

So is boredom, whether you're a teacher looking out at your classroom of students or whether you're just a person sitting there thinking about, well, I feel bored and I'm going to try to relieve my boredom and click around on the web and all of a sudden it's an hour and I feel worse in the end. Can boredom in either of those cases be what we might consider a really useful signal, something that we should act on, but we don't really act on in necessarily a positive way?

[00:35:52]

For the most part, yeah. I generally think I mean, if you want my secret view of like what success in life really is from a psychologist, what your secret view of success. All right.

[00:36:03]

That's good to go out on a limb here and say it. You know, it's not that I have, like, all the, you know, a mountain of evidence and so forth, but I think it really comes down to this. Every successful person that I've ever interviewed and I do a lot of interviewing of successful, you know, gold medalists and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies and so forth. Every single one is extraordinarily metacognitive.

[00:36:25]

By that I mean that they are able to reflect on their own emotions, their own thoughts and their own behaviors. They're sort of able to step outside themselves and say, what am I doing? What just happened there? Is that something that I liked? Did I not like it? What can I do to kind of go back into the situation and and do it differently next time to a one? I would say that that is characteristic of of successful people.

[00:36:52]

And so, therefore, if you're bored, I think it's a very healthy thing to say to yourself. Huh. I noticed that I spent four hours today at work. You know, my husband said this to me actually last night. He said, you know, I. I realized that I really hate reading construction contracts, so he's a real estate developer and he had this moment of metacognitive insight that he found this like the most boring part of his job.

[00:37:16]

And then what he did was he, like acknowledging that boredom is like, you know, they have to get done right and they actually have to get reviewed very carefully because otherwise I could lose a lot of money. So he decided to call construction lawyer and he delegated a bunch of this stuff and he felt terrific about it. I think not that every kid can delegate reading their homework assignment or delegate memorizing their time. So you can't always do that. But that moment of metacognitive insight to know thyself and then to say, OK, well, you know, given the situation, what could and should I do about it?

[00:37:46]

I think that is truly crucial.

[00:37:52]

That's our show for today. I hope we haven't bored you. Coming up next time on Freakonomics Radio, I realized that I am proposing nothing short of the most audacious power play by black America in the history of the country.

[00:38:08]

Charles Blow, author of the new book The Devil You Know, A Black Power Manifesto. That's next week. Until then, take care of yourself and if you can, someone else to.

[00:38:23]

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renumbered Radio, we can be reached at radio at Freakonomics Dotcom. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth. Our staff also includes Alison Craigmore, Mark McCluskey, Greg Rippin, Zach Lapinsky, married to Duke, Matt Hickey and Emma Tyrrell. We had help this week from Lyrica Bowdich. Our theme song is Mr. Fortune by The Hitchhiker's The Complete Archive of Freakonomics Radio. More than 400 episodes is now available on all podcast apps.

[00:38:54]

And you can also hear our show on many NPR stations across the country. As always, thanks for listening. Ditcher.