Feeling bored makes you more likely to act sadistically - study

The researchers found a strong correlation between respondents scoring high on everyday boredom levels and enjoying hurting or humiliating other people in everyday life.

 Visual representation of bullying. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Visual representation of bullying.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

A new research paper featured by the American Psychology Association (APA) reveals a new “crucial but overlooked”  factor in what drives people to act sadistically: a feeling of boredom. 

Earlier research on sadistic behavior dealt primarily with its correlation to power dynamics. The question of what scenarios trigger sadism was most famously explored in Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, which claimed that putting generally non-sadistic people in positions of power could induce sadistic behavior — Zimbardo arbitrarily appointed several study participants as "prison guards" over others and reportedly had to be cut short when the mistreatment of the "prisoners" got out of hand. New evidence, however, has challenged Zimbardo's findings.

Stefan Pfattheicher at Aarhus University and colleagues report a total of 9 studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. Using personality assessments and questionnaires from a pool of 1,780 people from the US, Germany, and Denmark, the researchers found a strong correlation between respondents scoring high on everyday boredom levels and enjoying hurting or humiliating other people in everyday life. This correlation was also applied to past situations, i.e. adults who reported to have bullied their peers during high school as bored adolescents. 
The study went on to explore the effect of boredom in the military and even in parent-child situations, reporting that sadistic behavior toward fellow soldiers increased during less eventful times in military service. Similarly, parents from the US, Canada, and the UK turned out to be more inclined to behave sadistically toward their children when they felt bored while caring for them, for example by making jokes at their children's expense or even hurting them physically. Therefore, the study “points to a potential cause of child maltreatment that has not so far been considered in empirical research”, the researchers wrote.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, boredom was also a major contributing factor in trolling behavior, i.e. purposely misleading or frustrating other people online. 

 cyberbullying (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE) cyberbullying (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)
With the outcomes of the research pointing toward the potentially extreme effects of boredom on aggression,  the results suggest that implementing strategies to decrease boredom in the aforementioned settings might in turn reduce sadistic behavior as well.  “We argue,” they write, “that the present research represents ground for giving such interventions a try.”