Dicing with Boredom. . . & Coping Styles

If you’re constantly channel surfing and find yourself watching the same old stuff, over and over again, stuck on facebook or twitter for hours on end, and the fridge door is opening and closing at night so much that the neighbours think you’ve having a disco in the kitchen, chances are YOU ARE BORED!

None of these activities are intrinsically ‘bad’, it’s just that sticking to the same habitual patterns of of ”boredom relief‘ is hardly likely to relieve boredom. It’s important to take a reality check from time to time and ask ‘Am I hungry or bored?’ or ‘Do I really want to watch the 1930s movie in ‘brown & white’ or am I bored? Am I networking or ‘net-jerking’? To relieve boredom we usually go through the same rituals, such as eating, drinking or watching TV simply because they are our tried, tested and trusted ways of relieving boredom. There’s also an element of emotion-focused coping. This means that we use food or TV to replace the negative emotions associated with boredom. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms.

There’s an old saying that variety is the spice and this sounds like I’m ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’, but you’re only bored because you aren’t doing anything that you’re really interested in at that moment! So rather than stick to the quick-fixes, here’s a little technique that helps make up your mind to do something different. I’ve borrowed the idea from the book The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. It’s the story of a therapist who decides to live his life according to the roll of dice, with alarming consequences. However, we are only going to subject our boredom to chance!

Here’s how:

Make a list from 1 to 21 of the things you could be doing to relieve the boredom, that doesn’t include food, drink or TV (or any other of your rituals). The reason it’s 21 things is because that’s the combinations of a numbers on a pair of dice (1 & 1, 1 & 2, 1 & 3. . .and so on up to 5 & 6 and 6 & 6). A third of the things should include things you have been putting off such as  ‘decluttering your wardrobe’. A third should be personal challenges that you never seem to make time for such as ‘learn a new language’. The remainder are things you like doing to relax such as ‘go for a walk’ or ‘read a book’, and so on.

So, the next time you feel board and find your fingers zapping the remote control or opening and closing the fridge door, reach for a pair of dice and your list. Roll the dice and add up the dots and do whatever number is on your list. No excuses, no second roll. Just do it. The afterwards review your thoughts and feelings? Did it do the trick and relieve your boredom? If not, then roll again and try something else.

Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. The dice technique is a fun techniques for pattern-breaking, to get us to consider other options. However, it is no substitute for making informed choices and adopting a control-focused coping style, that is, we seek to tackle the problem at its cause, not just mop up the symptoms.

So next time, you’re faced with an unpleasant emotion, instead of reaching for the cake slice or the remote control ask yourself what’s behind it, and what you can do to tackle it at source.

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Britain’s Got Some Thinking To Do.

A journalist friend, Paul Flower, has run with my post on Susan Boyle and Britain’s Got Talent and expanded on some of the issues that have been overlooked at large, which in turn has given me more food for thought.

The current debate seems to be focusing on whether contestants on Britain’s Got Talent should be subjected to psychological screening as they are with Big Brother. However, those jumping on this bandwagon seem to be missing the point that BGT and BB are two very different programmes.  With BGT, people with a modicum of talent are looking for a break, whereas in BB, people without talent are chasing celebrity (at any cost). It’s also worth pointing out that if we applied the same psychological screening criterion to all ‘talent’ and celebrity, a significant percentage would be screened out.

Most of the 350 complaints received by Ofcom related to the treatment of ten year old Hollie Steel. However 80% of the complaints were about the unfairness to other contestants that she was given a second chance. Only 14% were questioning the ethics of having children on the show. The remaining 6% complained about the treatment of Susan Boyle. So for the 14% of complainants, they really need to contrast one crying ten year old with the other kids who appeared on the show. Shaheen Jafargholi gave a vocal performance that a adult would be envious of, and dancer Aiden Davis had to cope with having a moving stage sprung on him at the last minute. Then we have to consider that kids cry all the time. They get extremely upset about things that adults consider trivial. They cry and scream when they have to go to bed early and cry in supermarkets and roll around the floor and wet themselves if they can’t have sweets (I know I did).

There has been a great deal of emphasis on what the producers of BGT could be doing to protect the contestants from distress and in particular Susan Boyle. One thing that springs to mind is 24 hour protection from media intrusion but clearly that’s impractical. Of course BGT stage managed the whole thing from the outset. The run up to the audition ensured that our expectations of Susan Boyle were lowered. Judges sneered and audiences sniggered and rolled their eyes. It was a well-crafted piece of television designed to get strong reactions. We were all manipulated. However, I don’t thing anyone could have predicted the impact this few minutes of television would have, helped along by YouTube and Twitter. And exactly, who is going to regulate those? Paul Flower in his blog echoes sentiments from the first BGT winner, Paul Potts, who pointed out that he only had nine days of press attention whereas Susan Boyle had seven weeks from audition to finals.

One thing we need to turn out attention how we collectively take responsibility and rethink out attitudes to celebrity and whether we condone editors paying fortunes for ‘pap-snaps’ of people in distress. In the hotel incident with Susan Boyle in the run up to the final, two journalists allegedly deliberately set out with the intention of causing her distress. They did not report the news but created it, just for the sheer hell of it.

Susan Boyle has ‘enjoyed’ a lightning speed rise to celebrity-dom, which apparently makes her fair game. Some have commented that ‘she needs to get used to it as it goes with the territory’ but few have questioned the morals of hounding someone who just ‘entered a talent contest’ a couple of months ago. It’s welcome news that the Press Complaints Commission have emailed editors reminding them of their code of practice.

Even seasoned professional media-manipulators would have had problems dealing with the media attention,  speculation and intrusion Susan Boyle is receiving. Let’s hope the banality of Big Brother spectacle will provide Susan Boyle with some respite so that she can recover and pursue her dream of ‘being a professional singer’ rather than the main attraction in a media circus.

I suppose we should at least be thankful that no-one has used the term ‘subogate‘. . damn. . spoke too soon!

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The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote?  Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch.  But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing.  It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a  literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.

As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not.  So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!

Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.

Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and  that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact.  In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.

So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?

Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time –  our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?

We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes  and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind.   So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared?  Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst  and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are  foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of  a good story.

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Welcome to PsyCentral with Gary Wood

Hello and welcome to my blog. As you may have gathered, the key theme running through it will be psychology. I’ve recently become a ‘tweeter’ on Twitter.com and to be honest I’m still a bit bemused by it all. However, I noticed that a friend had integrated his blog and his ‘tweets’ and was inspired to do the same. So I’ve set up the blog in the hope it will inspire my tweets. Hey, it’s not the greatest of motivations but it’s got me started.

The goal for the blog is to discuss news stories that have a psychological angle and ‘critique’ a few of the nonsense bits of research that do psychology a great disservice. Performance artist Laurie Anderson has derided blogging as ‘Me-search’ (as opposed to ‘research’), so I will be bearing this in mind and keep the emphasis on evidence-based research. Although, I’m not ruling out the odd rant or a bit of ‘thinking out loud’.

Bright Moments

Gary Wood