The less intelligent you are, the more bored you are

By Razib Khan | December 29, 2009 9:57 am

The Audacious Epigone has an interesting post up, Burden of boredom borne by blockheads:

This isn’t just me speaking from personal experience–the data confirm it. The GSS asked respondents in 1982 and again in 2004 how often they have time on their hands that they don’t know what to do with. Using the familiar categorization method employed here before*, the following table shows the percentage of each group’s members who reported to “almost never” be without something worthwhile to do in their free time:

He presented his data in tabular format. I decided to use the variables he kindly provided and produce some charts. Below are the frequency bored from lowest WORDSUM score, 0, to highest, 10. 0 meaning 0 out of 10 words correct on a vocabulary test, and 10 meaning 10 out of 10 correct. I also checked degree attainment. For those who have a hard time making out the legend, the darker the shading, the more bored the class.

I think part of the issue is gene-environmental correlation. As you grow up you tend to select your social environment, and the duller you are, the more dulls you surround yourself with. And of course the inverse is true as well.
Of course one wonders about the role of socialization here. I’ve noticed that on many issues once you control for educational attainment, differences in intelligence are marginalized. In other words, people believe Y more because they are socialized in environment X, and Z is correlated with environment X. Unfortunately the sample sizes are pretty small, but in a few educational categories they’re not bad. I recoded the WORDSUM so that 0-3 = “Dumb”, 4-8 “Average” and 9-10 “Smart.” For those with completed secondary educations (high school), the N’s were 92, 859 and 105. Here’s the chart:
As you can see, among those with high school educations as the highest level of attainment, the smart are less bored. Some of these differences are strong enough that the 95% confidence intervals don’t always overlap. The only other category with N’s of any size are those with bachelors degrees who are average or smart. Here’s the chart:
There is generally overlap across the 95th intervals, but it’s a close thing in some cases. Looking at previous data I’d expected that education would eliminate the effect, but I’d hazard to guess now that there’s something here that can be validated by larger sample sizes. I don’t know if intelligent people are happier, but they are probably less bored.

  • AG

    Now, it explains why certain neiborhoods have people idling on the streets. Keeping youself busy and out of trouble might also contribute productive works for society and wealth for youself.

  • Clark

    Probably we should add the caveat of context. When left on their own they are less bored. But often due to social reasons the intelligent are put in circumstances where they can’t be creating or researching and thus find themselves far more bored. (Especially those with Aspergers or having characteristics close to it socially)

  • Rafael

    Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had already said this – that the misfortune of the common man is boredom, and that of the more gifted is depression. Do you know if there are differences in depression rates between the groups too?

  • Interrobang

    My mother always said “Only stupid people get bored.” Who knew she was actually right?
    I wish I had “extra time.”
    The last time I was actually more or less bored, I had H1N1, and I was in too much pain and breathing difficulty to sleep, and too tired to concentrate, which meant staring at the ceiling for hours. That’s boring no matter who you are.

  • TGGP

    Somewhat counter-intuitive, in that we expect the dim to be more easily entertained, while the elite have a refined intellectual palate.

  • Allan

    It could be that the less intelligent you are, the more bored you are, but I suspect causation runs the other way. That is, being easily bored makes you less intelligent. Intelligence, from one perspective, requires constantly looking for novel information. So, if you are pre-disposed to not be easily bored, you are more likely to be pre-disposed to be searching for novelty and therefore you are likely to be more intelligent.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    Well, of course one can’t get bored easily. There’s always something to think about. The number of really cool unsolved math problems will likely never be exhausted. And that’s just for starters. The only times I get bored are when there’s something boring which more or less forces control of my attention. Boring lectures, boring movies and boring dinner guests seem to be the primary villains.

  • Mutallab geeert

    My aspergers didn’t allow me to surround myself with intellectual achievers, but if I have access to any computer in a short while I am deeply involved with something on it. Upon first meeting me you would think I am like everyone else, but upon leaning closer, you see that I am a Man in Black, involved in something probably alien to you in either science or socially inappropriate, or historically pertinent to another era. Consciousness avails those of us with imagination vistas unheralded and unseen by others, and the intellectual honesty of the aspergers is a driving motivator of achievement not necessarily involving money or social prestige.

  • GR

    This article seems to correlate excessive free time with boredom without any data to back it up. I would argue that some of the most intelligent people actually create time for themselves that has no purpose at all, simply time to reflect without it actually having a use. Furthermore, the most intelligent people often are bored because the aren’t challenged by their work. Just because someone is busy does not mean he/she isn’t bored.

  • Ian Kemmish

    These graphs are at odds with everyday experience.
    Surely the most intelligent of all (up there with Leo Tolstoy) know that, after all, _nothing_ of what you do is, ultimately, “worthwhile” (the word allegedly actually used in the questionnaire)? Maybe one in ten million of us will achieve anything which will last even ten years after our death. There should be an enormous uptick at the right hand side of your graph, yet there isn’t.
    Similarly, if one goes by the old dictum that work is the curse of the drinking classes, which it surely is, then there should be a corresponding downtick at the left hand side. Such people are never without a pursuit which they see as “worthwhile”.
    One suspects that the group used in this “experiment” was largely self-selecting, and quite possibly largely “middle class”.

  • “GrrlScientist”

    i agree that those included in this study were likely mostly middle class. i have lived in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood, it seemed to me that regardless of intellect, the kids and young adults are mostly bored because there is little to do; crime prevents kids from doing much outdoors, libraries and parks are few, poorly maintained and of low quality, and if any of the neighborhood kids have something “nice” (a camera, for example), they have to keep it hidden from others or risk losing it. of course, the problems associated with lack of money, lack of nutritious food, lack of social support, and unhealthy living conditions also accentuate these issues. poverty is damaging to intellectual development, even when the impoverished are “smart”.

  • Carlo

    The data only shows that less education correlates with more boredom, not less intelligence. That may be true, but cannot be inferred from plotting education vs boredom!

  • AR

    Highly intelligent people are only entertained by things that are worthwhile? Since when?

  • Katie

    I’m surprised nobody has pointed out that scores on a vocabulary test are a very poor measure of intelligence… Isn’t it likely that people who read more are less bored, better educated, and also know more vocabulary? As far as causation, how about this scenario: People who are good at keeping themselves busy are more likely to pick up reading as a habit. Not surprising, as reading is a fairly obvious way of entertaining oneself and can be directly connected to plenty of other hobbies. So people who are better at keeping busy are less bored. Nothing shocking there.

  • Markk BCE

    “Maybe one in ten million of us will achieve anything which will last even ten years after our death”
    I would guess the really intelligent wouldn’t equate ‘worthwhile’ with ‘lasting 10 years after our death’, so that point wouldn’t stand.

  • razib

    the GSS is weighted toward lower class subjects. i didn’t do a study btw. i just used the gss browser:
    and vocab is a good proxy for IQ. sorry, that’s just what the research shows. as whether the dumb are born dumb, or made dumb, that’s a separate issue. this just shows a correlation between dumb adults and boredom.

  • agnostic

    “This article seems to correlate excessive free time with boredom without any data to back it up.”
    In the comments to the first linked post, I ran a similar check for the question, “In general, do you find life exciting, pretty routine, or dull?”
    Using the same IQ groups, here’s the % who find life exciting minus % who find it dull (“net” exciting-ness):
    Really smarts: 56.5
    Pretty smarts: 50
    Normals: 42.1
    Pretty dumbs: 36.4
    Really dumbs: 29.6
    The % who find it routine also declines as you go up the IQ scale.
    The “excessive free time” and “life is dull” variables are strongly positively related. So the free time picture is telling us what we think it is.

  • Melykin

    Maybe the less educated people are bored because they can only get really boring jobs.
    It is hard to see how anyone with access to a computer and the Internet could ever be bored. I lived most of my life before home computers and the Internet, and I remember being bored while waiting anxiously for the newspaper to arrive. (I was a stay-at-home Mom)

  • gerard pawling

    i’m very bored.

  • stripey_cat

    Handwaving suggestion here: I wonder if being less prone to boredom actually makes you smarter? If a kid spends a lot of time kicking about doing nothing, or flip-flopping between tasks getting rapidly fed up with each, is he going to be developing his intelligence potential less? So, I suspect, both cultural training (persistence and finding something productive to do) and natural biases (is distractability genetically linked or environmental? In any case it’s well developed in infancy in many cases) could impact on both likelihood to be bored and to be intelligent.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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