We try to avoid people with these stereotypically boring traits

By Matthew Warren

Picture a boring person in your mind. What are they like? If you’re imagining someone who loves watching TV, has no sense of humour, and works in finance, your stereotype of a boring person is similar to those described in a recent study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. But whether or not these kinds of stereotypes are accurate, the researchers behind the paper find that they can have damaging social implications: people have a low opinion of those with “boring” traits, and will try to actively avoid them.

The researchers, led by Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg from the University of Essex, began by asking online participants to note down “typical features” of a boring person, as well as occupations and hobbies they associated with being boring. They then grouped responses into categories: 45 pertaining to personal characteristics (e.g. “no sense of humour”); 19 relating to hobbies (e.g. “collecting”); and 28 relating to occupations (e.g. “banking and finance”).

Three further groups of participants then rated how boring a person with each of these characteristics, hobbies, or jobs seemed. The features most stereotypical of boring people included “not interesting”, “dull”, and “no opinions”. Occupations most associated with boring people included “data analysis”, “accounting”, and “tax/insurance”, while hobbies included “sleeping”, “religion”, and “watching TV”.

The researchers then turned to people’s perceptions of, and behaviour towards, people with these traits. Participants read vignettes about three people. One was given characteristics, hobbies, and a job that had all been rated as stereotypical of boring people in the previous experiment; one had traits that were rated the least stereotypically boring; and one was somewhere in the middle. (None of these fictional people was described as boring, as the researchers were interested in perceptions of people with these traits, rather than people explicitly labelled as boring).

Participants rated how competent (e.g. skilled or hard-working) and warm (e.g. friendly or caring) each person was. And the team found that those with highly and moderately boring traits were viewed as both less warm and less competent than those with the least boring traits.

The next study used the same methodology, except participants rated the extent to which they would avoid or spend time with each person. The researchers found that participants wanted to avoid the person with the most boring traits significantly more than the person with moderately boring traits, who in turn was avoided more than the person with the least boring traits.   

In a final study, participants indicated how much money they would need to receive in order to spend a given length of time with each person, ranging from one to seven days. The results showed that the more boring traits someone had, the more money participants needed to be paid in order to spend time with them. This was true regardless of the length of time they had to spend together.

Overall, then, the paper shows that people who hold stereotypically boring traits are judged negatively, and actively avoided. And although the results may not seem that surprising, it’s interesting to see a formal investigation into something many of us may have assumed.

It’s worth stressing that the work can’t say whether or not these stereotypes are accurate. Although we may think that accountants who like to sleep are boring, that doesn’t mean they are. So it’d be interesting to know more about where these stereotypes come from. The team suggests that some people may in fact use such stereotypes to seem more interesting or unique by comparison — particularly if they feel that they are being judged as boring themselves.

These studies were all conducted with participants in the US or UK, and there are likely cultural differences in who we perceive as boring — so these stereotypes may not generalise more broadly. It’s also clear that even within a culture, people’s perceptions of boring people vary. Some people in the first study felt that boring people liked sports and reading, for instance, and that actors and journalists tended to be boring. Although other participants didn’t rate these traits as particularly boring, this shows how varied people’s views can be. Future work could look at individual differences in these perceptions.

Still, the authors point out that regardless of who we see as boring, our negative perceptions of them may be similar. And these stereotypes could lead to harm, placing people judged to be boring at risk of loneliness and isolation. “Rather than perceiving them as performing a social ‘crime’”, the researchers write, “perhaps those seen as boring should receive some sympathy and support instead.”

Boring People: Stereotype Characteristics, Interpersonal Attributions, and Social Reactions

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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