Resistance to boredom as a scientific moral value?

June 23rd, 2008 by jose

Is there a simple explanation for why some people pick up demanding activities (such a career in science) while some others are happy watching television most of their spare time?

Maybe it’s as simple as this: boredom is aversive to everyone, but people differ on when they get so bored they need to do something about it or their head will explode. Let’s call this the boredom threshold. So let’s play with the naive theory that people with a low boredom threshold do science (or art, or some other complex, demanding activities). And let’s assume that mainstream jobs (i. e. those that apply existing knowledge instead of living at the bleeding edge) can get away doing the same things over and over again. This is a caricature, but bear with me.  

Some job descriptions value resistance to boredom. Of course, that’s not in the contract, but it’s implicit. And the humility it takes to take such a job is not only accepted, but encouraged in Western society. It’s almost getting to a point where the trait could suffer natural selection (if our standards lasted a few million years :) ). There are more boring jobs than interesting jobs (i.e., interesting jobs are in the ‘long tail’ of a power-law distribution). People willing to accept a boring job have thus more chances of being employed. More so, most jobs have some boring part, so a caricature of a person that would only take non-boring jobs and would quit as soon as something boring comes up would be kicked out of the gene pool.

One could think that the industrial revolution (i.e., letting machines do the repetitive work) should have taken away some boring jobs and shifted the distribution… but the fact is that the industrial revolution seems to shift the

Thus conformists have a clear advantage here. It shows in the proportion of people who keep a job compared to those who build a company (assume here, for simplicity’s shake that all companies are perceived by their founders as non-boring; this doesn’t have to be the case).

But what shocked me was to realize that this high valuation of resistance to boredom has permeated to the academic world. 

Our culture values scientific exploration highly and readily concedes that it takes unusual mental capabilities to engage in such activities at a high level. But does it? I argue that modern society rewards the careerist and not the risk-taking explorer. The academic system rewards papers, not ideas. And often, the peer review process makes reviewing and revising a paper excruciatingly slow. That biases the selection criteria towards submissive, conformist science.

As Demonfreaker says:

The ‘publish or perish’ culture, and the sinister ‘peer review’ stranglehold on thinking in universities, has cut down on the number of interesting thinkers produced by these higher places of learning. What good thinkers need is freedom and, like a plant, the right ‘soil’ to flourish in (nice facilities, steady funding, lots of debate). But today’s universities are stifling dens of political correctness.

So, to reiterate my point: far from the romantic idea of the creative genius, Today’s science values a lot more people who can survive in extremely boring conditions. The above article mentions that Ludwig Wittgenstein might have been a genius, but it took him decades to produce a book, so he will habe been kicked out in the current system.

When boredom is necessary

Some activities that can  be excellent sources of joy come surrounded by an unavoidable barrier of boredom. For example, learning a new language or a new instrument both involve an initial phase of rote learning in which one is not proficient enough to actually have fun! Could science (or scholarship) be like this?

In scholarship, there is of course a ‘learning the ropes’ period that may be cataloged by some as ‘boring’.

But what I’m talking about here is not that. Sometimes the intrinsic activities of doing science are repetitive and boring beyond words. I just finished watching ‘Kinsey‘. There, the main character spends most of his career collecting and cataloging wasps (Of course, he changes his main topic to sex at some point, and everyone loves him ) :) .

But again, I’m not arguing that some topics rely on methods that are boring; what I think happens in modern academia is that it forces people to do gray, boring, and conservative work. Once, while I was working on my PhD. I attended a party where someone said to me: “So… you do research. That’s just pushing paper (i.e., meaningless red tape)”. At that time, I was so excited doing my research that his statement sounded deeply out of touch with reality. I would sleep in my office just to get to see the results on time. Now, time has passed, and I’m almost agreeing with him in this article (!).

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6 Responses to “Resistance to boredom as a scientific moral value?”

  1. VictorNo Gravatar Says:

    The parts of doing research I enjoy are reading, thinking, preparing experiments, doing data analysis… Publishing papers, on the other hand, always felt like a really boring drag: Having to write up the results, re-writing for clarity, shortening to meet to a journal’s maximum page number, re-writing based on peer reviews (often again and again over the course of months), writing answers and explanations to reviewer/editor questions etc…

    I’d acknowledge that all my papers and my understanding of my research subjects have/has been improved through the process required to publish, because it forced me to be more meticulous, methodical and succint than I’d otherwise go about my research.

    And still, the need to publish – i.e. having to go through the publishing process – was one of the reasons why I decided to leave academia (at least temporarily) to start a company instead. Haven’t had a boring day since, but sometimes I miss having the time to fully think things through like in academia.

  2. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    Hey Victor,

    I just visited your startup ( and I think you guys have the potential to alleviate some of the boring tasks I mentioned :)

    By the way, I have my own startup too. I’ll post some more about it soon.

    Good luck!

  3. Marisa PontiNo Gravatar Says:

    Hello Jose,

    i just discovered your blog:-) you are so witty and amusing! Talking about boredom, this is how I feel right now trying to find a purpose – except for passing a course – for sustaining my vacillant attention while reading a bunch of boring articles. Isn´t it demoralizing that after a lot of hard work – that Victor summarized well – to craft a publishable paper, the outcome can be, well, embarrassingly boring??

    I am a PhD candidate – a mid-career graduate student who started academic work for twists of life but – and I like studying and do research but I have already learnt that the academic system rewards papers and not ideas, even more so now that research assessment is largely dependent on publications in reputable journals.

  4. LMSNo Gravatar Says:

    Interesting article. I wonder why I hadn’t come across it earlier on your blog. anyway, boredom is certainly a really difficult situation for me. I’m used to doing something most of the time since college and now I really need to be doing something to keep me active. When I have completed whatever I’m working on and have no other work, It really drives me to a weird situation.

  5. EngineerNo Gravatar Says:

    “Is there a simple explanation for why some people pick up demanding activities (such a career in science) while some others are happy watching television most of their spare time?”

    I worked in a factory once. There was a guy near me assembling two small metal components. It took no more than a minute each time. Then he did it all over again. I asked him, ‘How can you stand doing something so boring?’. He told me that the job suited him because he ‘couldn’t get into trouble’.

    I quit a couple of months later, I couldn’t stand the repetition.

    Two entirely different personalities – but note that the world needs both types!

  6. sun touch productsNo Gravatar Says:

    Boredom sucks. I’m actually in my mid semester break and I’m completely jobless. So bored. Stumbled across your blog while I was looking to do something about boredom. It was a really cool article. Thanks. Cheers

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