Boredom when it is severe and prolonged is torment to humans and can cause dangerous or criminal behaviour and depression. It has been little researched from a biological perspective to date and some believe boredom is unique to humans.
However, Dr Charlotte Burn, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare and Behaviour Science at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has recently published work suggesting that non-human animals also suffer with boredom.
The conceptual review in the journal Animal Behaviour shows that many animals will do almost anything to avoid monotony, even things they would normally dislike, such as eating food that makes them sick or pressing levers for very bright light.
Three key aspects of boredom can be measured scientifically: avoidance of monotony, inability to maintain wakefulness, and trained behaviour indicating that time is perceived as ‘dragging’.
Being able to scientifically study boredom is important to help develop and assess the effectiveness of environmental enrichment and other interventions designed to reduce animal boredom. It will also help us understand the causes of abnormal behaviour and cognitive deficits caused by barren environments and highly predictable routines in captive animals. It can also shed light on human problems that are triggered by boredom.
Asked about species within zoos and ramifications for pet owners, Dr Burn said: “Boredom is in a way the most obvious animal welfare challenge in captivity, e.g. zoo visitors often immediately attribute abnormal behaviour in the animals to 'boredom', and yet it has been overlooked in biological research despite big efforts to combat other animal welfare challenges. As for the pets we live with, this is all a reminder that even if animals are healthy and loved, they can still suffer - and perhaps REALLY suffer - from sameness and lack of stimulation.
“Boredom when it is almost all day, every day, is not a ‘luxury’, as it is sometimes described as by busy humans. So whilst animals need security and therefore some predictability, they also need environmental enrichment to allow them to exercise and choose 'what to do next'. Some also need to be able to explore unfamiliar objects or places, or to learn new information, such as via training and 'party tricks'. All training should be via rewards, rather than punishment, to improve animal welfare.”
The reference for the paper itself is: Burn, C. C. (2017) ‘Bestial boredom: a biological perspective on animal boredom and suggestions for its scientific investigation’, Animal Behaviour, 130: 141-151