March 29, 2022 — Apologies up front to anyone who spends their weekends bird-watching or doing math for fun. They are among the people expected to be boring, based on stereotypes about what they do for work or how they spend their spare time, new research reveals.
Researchers surveyed more than 500 people across five related experiments to identify what people perceive as the most boring jobs, traits, and hobbies. They also report how we could all be missing out by spending as little time as possible with our tax consultant, accountant, or financial adviser outside of work.
People who work in banking, finance, accounting, data analytics, and cleaning topped the most boring list in the study, published earlier this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Sleeping, religion, watching television, observing animals, and spending spare time on mathematics were the stereotypical most boring hobbies and activities. The “observing animals” group includes people who bird-watch or study ants.
On the flip side, the top five most exciting jobs, in order, were in the performing arts, science, journalism, health professions, and teaching.
The researchers also looked at the how likely people are to avoid spending time with stereotypical dullards.
“Are people who are stereotyped as being boring avoided, if possible? Our current research shows that this is likely,” says Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg, PhD, one of the researchers who did the study.
Beyond specific traits and stereotypes, Van Tilburg and colleagues found that boring people are seen as lacking skills and warmth.
“To our surprise, it appears that they are seen as both unfriendly and incompetent,” says Van Tilburg, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Essex in the U.K.
What qualities do people most often ascribe to boring people? Besides being “dull,” “dry,” “bland,” and “not interesting,” common stereotypes include thinking someone who is likely boring will have no sense of humor, lack opinions, or complain.
The people surveyed also were more likely to place boring people in towns and small cities rather than large metropolitan areas.
A Vicious Cycle?
What’s the possible harm of relying on boring stereotypes? If people are stereotyped as being boring solely based on professions and hobbies, “then that suggests that they will incur the negative consequences associated with being a stereotypically boring person — even when others haven’t actually interacted with them,” Van Tilburg says.
“Having a stereotypically boring profession or hobby may come with the inability to prove the biased perceivers wrong,” he says.
So making distinctions between stereotypes and realities is important, Van Tilburg says. “Those who have hobbies or occupations that are stereotypically boring do, of course, not actually have to be boring.”
Mark Leary, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, NC, agrees. “The research actually dealt with stereotypes about the kinds of people who hold certain jobs, have certain hobbies, and live in certain places — and not about boring people per se,” he says.
Leary points out that few people encounter bankers, tax experts, and others perceived as most boring outside a professional setting.
“When we have interactions with data analysts, accountants, insurance agents, and bankers, for example, those interactions are often boring not because the people are boring, but rather because the context is not interesting.”
To get past the preconceptions, “the best advice might be to get people to try to separate people from their roles when forming impressions of them.”
“We need to recognize that many of our interactions with other people are tied up in particular roles and topics and, thus, don’t reveal much about the other people themselves,” Leary says. “Maybe my accountant is the life of the party in other contexts.”
Dollars to Avoid the Dull?
The researchers also found that as the perception of how boring a person is increased, people were more likely to say they would avoid them.
To find a way to measure this avoidance, they asked people in the study how much money they would have to be paid to pal around with a perceived bore for 1 to 7 days. The payments people said they would need varied by perceptions that their boredom would be low, intermediate, or high.
As an example, they would require an average of $50 to spend one day with a highly boring person. That amount would double to $100 to spend almost 4 days in their company, and up to $230 for the week.
Leary says boredom happens when people try to pay attention to an experience or event. This means boredom goes beyond simple disinterest or trying to pay attention to someone that is not “intrinsically captivating.” When it takes more brain power to pay attention, you’ll perceive the experience as even more boring.
“Perhaps the best way to see if other people are actually boring is to talk about interesting things and see how they respond,” Leary says. “But, be careful: The topics you think make interesting conversations may be boring to others.”