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shilolo's avatar

Is an aversion to boredom evolutionarily conserved?

Asked by shilolo (18040points) January 14th, 2009

I can think of many examples where we culturally are constantly changing. For example, fashion, music, architecture, art, etc. Why haven’t we found the perfect song, or the perfect clothing? Why do we feel the need to constantly change? Is a desire for change a consequence of an aversion to boredom, or is it akin to risk-taking behavior?

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13 Answers

cage's avatar

Because change is seen as an advance.
Why do people change jobs?
Because they get bored. You wouldn’t want the same things over and over again, you’d want something new and exciting.
This applies on a species level too, and I think it is simply a way of advancing.

shilolo's avatar

@cage But why do we get bored. You could envision an alternate universe where, if you got really good at something (say your job), you would find that so satisfying (even if you were doing something repetitious) that you wouldn’t need change. So, my question is really, why are we constantly doing that?

steelmarket's avatar

IMHO, the desire for change could be a product of the selection for diversity. I am not sure that I would define boredom as a lack of change, but rather as a lack of engagement.

steelmarket's avatar

Expectations from a given activity change constantly. When what an activity delivers deviates enough from our expectations, we are ripe for boredom.

nikipedia's avatar

Are you asking if it’s literally conserved across evolution (i.e., our evolutionary ancestors experienced it too) or what the evolutionary benefit is?

Lightlyseared's avatar

We get bored because we no longer have to spend 18 hours a day looking for food and avoiding being eating by stuff that is bigger than us.

shilolo's avatar

@niki. I think both. I guess I could try harder to research this myself… :-P

nikipedia's avatar

Interesting question. I guess I see boredom as sort of an artifact of the way our brains are set up. (But of course, I’m biased.) We tend to perceive the world in terms of contrast and change. A 60 watt light is “bright” if you set it next to a 20 watt bulb, but “dim” if you put it next to a 120 watt light bulb. I think we’re wired to seek novelty. Although maybe it’s not fair to apply principles of perception to motivation. But in general you can become habituated to anything; if you do anything at all long enough your receptors become physically less attenuated to it and it becomes less pleasurable. So maybe you can apply them. I don’t know.

So do other species experience boredom? I think it probably has to do with how sophisticated their nervous systems are. Primates go nuts trying to amuse themselves in cages; cats are happier when they get to wander around outside and hunt; rats are better off in enriched environments…drosophila don’t seem to give a crap, though. That’s about the range of my experience. No clue where the phylogenetic boredom cutoff is.

Critter38's avatar

You seem to be seeking ultimate rather than proximate answers, perhaps it has something to do with the following.

Up until approximately 10000 years ago all of our ancestors were hunter gatherers. If we accept that humans have been humans (homo) for most of the paleolithic (back to approximately 2.5 million years ago) then for the vast majority of our evolutionary history we have been selected for to occupy an area, survey or resurvey it for known resources or potential new ones (plant food species, animal food species, medicinal sources, salt, spices), threats, places to cook, hunt, camp, find water, avoid other groups, find other groups, defend, attack, etc.. After a certain period of time we deplete an area of resources and pollute an area with our faeces and thus potentially increase the disease risk by sitting put. Agriculture allowed us to have greater time on our hands for other pastimes, but up until recently still provided benefits to most individual if we retained characteristics that were selected for over much of our evolutionary history.

All of this I would imagine has created a species which if too comfortable with the familiar, to apathetic with regards to new things, to lacking in curiosity to experiment and learn, would have quickly died out through starvation or disease. Complacency and acceptance with the known and the familiar (eg. the lack of capacity to feel uncomfortable with such conditons), should be selected against under such conditions. Boredom (discomfort with lack of new stimulus) stimulates us to do something, and to think of something to do, or of a better way of doing it, both likely to reap positive outcomes and both likely to have been selected for in our evolutionary past. Hence I would imagine that having a threshold for which the feeling of boredom kicks in is selected for, and hence can have emergent outcomes with respect to a desire to constantly alter the sensory stimulus we receive, even if we continue to remain in the same place. Thus simulating a change in environment (moving on), when in fact all we have done is altered the variety of stimulus received eg…sounds (change music), images (change the paint, fashion), tastes (alter your menu, restaurant, recipe), groups encountered (change venue, work, friends)...or if none of this works, get restless and leave town. Obsessively clean the toilet and its like you just came over the hill to a brand new valley to despoil. :)

Whether this threshold is shifting in different human populations at different rates is certainly plausible, but likely to be highly variable depending on which population was being considered and whether or not selection pressure was actually shifting the requisite genes in that population in a given and consistent direction…..hence determining whether boredom was evolutionarily “conserved” to some degree.

Harp's avatar

I guess we’d have to determine whether mental restiveness, of which boredom is more symptom than cause, is genetically or culturally acquired.

There are certainly cultures that have been, and still are, extremely slow to adopt changes, much less seek them. They seem to have a very high tolerance for uniformity and predictability, even espousing them as values. To take an extreme example, we have groups like the Amish, where there is a philosophical determination to accept the status quo in virtually all aspects of lifestyle.

We could hypothesize that this might represent a certain genetic population, since most are from a particular ethnic heritage, and have been fairly genetically isolated over many generations. In that scenario, any individuals who didn’t inherit the genetic basis for sameness-tolerance would simply leave these communities and, over time, the core population would become more and more sameness-tolerant. I haven’t been able to find statistics on whether the Amish retention rate has changed over time, but it is currently still quite high, near 90%. This can’t be attributed to lack of opportunity to sample other options, since Amish youth routinely spend 1 year outside the community, during which they’re free to experiment with alternative lifestyles, before deciding to commit to it.

It’s also interesting to look at the US as a counter example. Here, we have a population composed, almost by definition, of descendants of restive people. If there is a genetic component to this restiveness, then we would expect Americans to have retained that intolerance for the status quo, which we certainly have.

But maybe that restiveness is just self-propagating through the culture of consumerism, which has a strong interest in promoting change as a value. I don’t think we can ignore this commercial manipulation factor. The Amish are literally unplugged from the media that form our minds to this culture of obsolescence, fashion, fad and upgrading. It seems safe to predict that one’s restiveness would be in direct proportion to one’s exposure to that acculturation into the value of change. The introduction of commercially driven consumerism into even the most stable cultures does seem to guarantee the disruption of that stability, especially as it forms the minds of the younger generation.

I’m tempted to go on, especially since I haven’t really arrived at a conclusion here, but I don’t want to bore anyone with my ramblings. Great Question.

Critter38's avatar

Hardly boring!

it does raise slightly different issues, perhaps the Amish are really bored, but consider such “suffering” a means of getting closer to god…:)

I guess I was thinking of the generalization, and you’re honing in on why the exceptions. Helps to chip away towards the truth.

I also guess the question is then, what are the long term survival rates of cultures or populations which select against the adoption of new technologies or new ways of thinking…perhaps not bad at all if they compensate for boredom by breeding :)

Anyways, freezing advancement (perhaps more a repercussion of what we are talking about), may well be fine in the survival stakes at least for a few decades or centuries, as long as the evironment doesn’t change sufficiently to the point of requiring adaptations which are not acceptable to the culture in question. But as long as they would allow these minimum required advancements for survivial they could theoretically do alright through time.

Anyways…now Im meandering…

tiffyandthewall's avatar

this is a great question. but i guess life would be pointless if we were always content with even every single small thing. if we were happy with everything, what would we be doing but listening to the same song on repeat forever?

Sorceren's avatar

Great answers. Next up, world peace.

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