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New Study Answers Vital Question: Who Among Us Is Most Boring?

December 05, 1986|MALCOLM RITTER | Associated Press

NEW YORK — At last there is hope for what researchers call "chronically and excessively boring persons."

A recent study chronicled the "boringness index" of different personality types and is thought to be one of the first forays into "interpersonal boredom." The results were published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Harry Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester in New York, called the work "a first step in a whole new direction that we need to know more about."

"We're all boring sometimes, and we're all interesting sometimes. . . . Some people are more boring than others," said Mark Leary, assistant psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who wrote the report with three students.

The study attempted to answer the vital question: Who is more boring?

Is it Joe? If he isn't complaining, he's rattling on about some esoteric thing. Joe asks a lot of questions and mumbles "uh-huh" a lot when you talk.

Or is it Jack? He keeps calling things "far out," tells you his feelings and tries too hard to be nice.

Read on for the answer.

Students Surveyed

Leary's experiments were based on a survey of undergraduate students and analyses of brief conversations between students who had just met. More work will be needed to see if the findings apply to other kinds of people and situations as well, Leary said.

In one experiment, 42 students listed a total of 210 boring things that other people do. Researchers distilled these into 43 themes for a second survey of 297 students.

That survey found that the most boring behaviors were banality, such as talking about trivial or superficial things or showing interest in only one topic, and "negative egocentrism," which essentially means complaining about oneself and showing disinterest in others.

The least objectionable behaviors were "boring ingratiation," which meant trying to be funny and nice to impress others, and a mixture of distracting behaviors, such as going off on conversational tangents or overusing small talk or slang.

Thus, Joe is more boring than Jack. Although neither is cocktail-party material.

A second study focused on five-minute conversations between 52 pairs of strangers. Transcripts were reviewed by 12 undergraduates who rated a randomly chosen person in each conversation for "boringness." That person's conversation was separately studied for grammatical form and communicative intent, and the results compared to his "boringness index."

The study found that more boring people tended to talk less. In addition, their conversation tended to have higher proportions of questions and of simple acknowledgements that they were listening, such as "uh-huh."

"They were not reporting their own feelings and attitudes and opinions as much as the less boring people were," Leary said. And they made fewer statements of fact, he said.

In sum, the boring people weren't conveying interesting information. And their questions and acknowledgements were not likely to hold another's attention very long, researchers wrote.

Stating Feelings OK

Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, chairman of the behavioral sciences department at the University of Chicago, said it made sense that just revealing one's feelings did not increase boringness, whereas complaining about oneself did.

"It's OK to show that you are willing to trust the other person so you can reveal parts of yourself," he said, adding: "That kind of makes people interested" as long as one doesn't keep asking for sympathy by complaining.

The new research appears to "help us understand a little bit better what makes for boring interaction," he said. "I think we should also know more about what makes people exciting to be with."

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