The paradox of boredom intolerance: Why vigorously pursuing excitement makes people more bored

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Boredom is unpleasant, with people going to great lengths to avoid it. One way to escape boredom and increase stimulation is to consume digital media, for example watching short videos on YouTube or TikTok. One common way that people watch these videos is to switch between videos and fast-forward through them when they come across content that is not of immediate interest, a form of viewing we call digital switching. Here, we hypothesize that people consume media this way because they have little tolerance for boredom and try to avoid it. We further hypothesize that this boredom intolerance paradoxically increases boredom, at least in the context of digital switching. Across five experiments (four pre-registered, total N = 874), we found a bidirectional, causal relationship between boredom and digital switching. When participants were bored, they switched (Study 1); and they believed that switching would help them avoid boredom (Study 2). Switching, however led not to less boredom, but more boredom (Studies 3 and 4); it also reduced satisfaction, lowered attentional engagement, and lowered meaning. Examining switching in the context of reading (Study 5) yielded mixed results, however. Our findings suggest that when people try to avoid boredom, they sometimes unknowingly take actions that intensify it. When watching videos, enjoyment comes from immersing oneself in the videos rather than swiping through them.

Ryan Watkins