ーー I would like to confirm the findings of your study. The first study shows when students initially expect the classes to be boring, they tend actually to feel bored in class as well. The second study shows if the teacher feels the class is boring, then the students tend to feel bored.
Well, the first half is correct. We found that if you expect something to be boring, then chances are you will more likely feel bored. But the second part, about the teacher’s boredom, is a little bit more tricky. We found that when students thought that their teacher was feeling bored, they also felt more bored. So it’s not that teachers themselves were necessarily feeling bored, but students thought that their teacher was feeling bored. In fact, we didn’t find a relationship between teachers’ self-rated boredom and students’ ratings of their boredom. We thought that one reason for this is that students thought that their teachers were feeling bored because they themselves were bored. They might have projected their own feelings onto their teachers. That’s one possibility.
ーー Why did you start this study?
Boredom is something that we can all relate to. I’m sure you’ve all felt bored at some point in your life, maybe in class. I’m acutely aware of my boredom. So I realized that I’m someone who gets bored quite easily. Even when I was a child, I told my mom that. She would say, “If you are bored, learn to be friends with it.” Even throughout my adult life, I’ve always felt bored quite easily. That’s why I’ve been moving from country to country, it is even reflected in my own research study; jumping from one topic to another.
That’s when I realized, “Oh, since I’m a psychologist, why don’t I study boredom?” I was sure a lot of people have done studies in this area. And so I started getting curious. At the same time, I knew a very talented undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong. So I asked her, “Why don’t we do a study together, and you can use it for your thesis?” That student is Katy Tam, who was the first author of both papers cited by the Ig Nobel Committee. One thing led to another, we did a few studies together, and later she decided to do a PhD with me using boredom as her topic. So we kept pursuing this topic for a few years. It definitely started with my own boredom and trying to understand its mechanism.
ーー Did you face any difficulties in the study?
One of the studies involved high school teachers and students, and this study was done in Hong Kong. It’s hard to get schools and teachers to agree to do this. Logistically speaking, it was challenging. Teachers are overworked, tired, and have a lot on their plate. So asking them to do more for us and our research is difficult. The other study was done mostly in the university and in the laboratory. So logistically speaking, that’s slightly easier.
ーーDo you have any plans for future research?
Yes. We are currently working on several things. One of them is trying to understand if we feel bored because those around us are bored. Or more generally speaking, do we feel a certain feeling because other people are feeling it? Say you’re with your friends, and they seem to be very happy. Does that make you happier? Or are you thinking that they are happy because you are happy? So are you referencing your own feelings to understand other people’s feelings, or are you instead being affected by other people’s feelings? That started off with our boredom research as well. We wanted to understand whether people feel bored because other people around them are also bored or because they themselves are feeling bored and that’s why they think their teachers are feeling bored as well. So that’s one line of research that we’ve been doing.
We are also trying to train people to control their attention better. We believe that you feel bored because you have a short attention span; you notice you are “bored” because your attention has shifted. In other words, when you’re concentrating on something and then your attention shifts, that’s when you notice that maybe you are feeling bored. One thing that we want to try is helping people to be better at focusing and paying attention and see whether that would reduce their boredom. We’ve done several studies already, and so far it looks like there’s some evidence of that.
ーー How did you feel when you won the Ig Nobel Prize?
I was really surprised and very glad. We were informed a few months ago. First, I received a note from the ICU office saying that I had a phone message. So I reached out to the person who was trying to contact me. He turns out to be a professor here in Japan. He told me I’ve been nominated for the Ig Nobel Prize and asked whether we’d accept the nomination. I responed affirmatively. Then I received an email from Mark Abraham, who founded the Ig Nobel Prize, to congratulate me for winning the Prize. I replied saying I thought we were just nominated. Then he said, “No, no, you’d been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize.”
When I found out that we were nominated, I told all my collaborators on these two boredom-related projects about it. But then it turns out that we actually won it. We were, of course, very excited, happy, and surprised. We never expected to be eligible for this award, because we didn’t find what we studied to be funny. So, we had never considered this possibility. One of the conditions we were given was that we had to keep quiet until the official announcement. So for all those months, I couldn’t tell anyone. I only told my wife and my parents.
Since then, we’ve been getting a lot of attention in Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. There’s a lot of coverage about the award in general, but also on our studies. ICU staff, colleagues, and students have been very kind. When I’m walking around campus, they would often stop me to give me their congratulations. I feel very privileged. And I’m glad that I could share this joy with the ICU community. That’s how I’ve been feeling.
But of course, another important thing to note is that I don’t think this is an award that people aspire to win. When I’m planning what to study, I don’t imagine whether one day I will win the Ig Nobel Prize. I was just simply doing what I thought was interesting. I think winning this award is a gift from God. Just as another encouragement, to keep doing what I’m doing. We might not always see the fruit of our work, but sometimes we do, and when we do, we count that as a blessing, as a gift.
ーー How was the celebration? In the video of the celebration, you had 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollars.
Yeah. They sent us the PDF. So we printed it out. It’s not real.
I had to print it out myself. There’s a certificate as well, but I haven’t had a chance to print it out yet. I guess they don’t really have any budget. This whole experience is quite amusing, from the way they contacted us to the ceremony, which was pre-recorded, of course. But in November, we’ll go to Boston to meet the other winners and some real Nobel Laureates. So I look forward to that.
Treatment of Ig Nobel Prize in Japan
I have to say, Japan treats this very seriously. They see this prize quite highly. Whereas in Hong Kong, where I’m from, people don’t seem to don’t really care. We are the first-ever team in Hong Kong to win this. I got some newspaper and YouTube interviews, but otherwise, it’s not really talked about that much. Whereas in Japan, on the first day, I was in a newspaper. I didn’t know about it. Then the office told me “We want to do a press release.” The President of the university, Prof. Iwakiri, and my colleagues congratulated me, so it’s just been great. I’m glad that I’m here in Japan and I can share this with ICU.
ーー Do you feel bored in the ICU when you are teaching?
I hope not. If you’re able to concentrate, then it’s hard to feel bored. So it’s about learning how to concentrate. Even in a situation like this you can feel bored, and feeling bored is fine. The question ist, what do you do about boredom? Do you then think about something else? Or do you bring your attention back to the here and now? Feeling bored itself is natural, it’s fine. But when you keep running away from it, then that might be a problem.
ーー What are you doing to prevent students from getting bored?
I don’t think that’s my responsibility as a teacher to ensure my students don’t feel bored. The remedy is not to make lessons more interesting. I’m not there to entertain them; I’m there to teach them. Part of the lesson is for them to learn how to bring their attention back– to notice that they are distracted and bring themselves back. When the YouTube video is no longer that interesting, you switch to another one. So you keep using switching as a way to overcome boredom. But in class, I think you’re being trained to focus for 70 minutes. It’s not a long time, but it’s also not a short period of time. With practice, it will get easier.
So, I hope students will learn not to distract themselves as soon as they notice they’re bored. They have their laptop and their phones. But even if you feel like you’re not concentrating, don’t run away by looking at your phone. Try to help yourself. Come back on your own. That takes practice.
It takes practice for me as well. The phone is so powerful. You’re competing against the greatest companies in the world for trying to capture attention, right? For example, the Meta, X, LINE, everything they do is designed to capture your attention. They want you to look at their content because they monetize from that. They make money off your attention. They have the best minds in the world working in Silicon Valley; engineers, psychologists, and computer scientists are working together to capture our attention. So how can you, a single person, compete with them? You can’t. That’s why you have to find ways to help yourself. Students have to find ways to help themselves. Otherwise, you’re going to lose. As a teacher, I can never be more entertaining than the next TikTok or YouTube video. I can’t compete with them. It’s a lost cause. SoI need to teach my students how to bring their attention back.
ーー Did you feel bored when you were in university?
When I was a student? Yeah, of course, all the time.
ーー How did you overcome it?
I started choosing courses that I found interesting. When I was an undergraduate student, the first two years were hard because I had all these basic foundational prerequisites that I needed to take. I wasn’t very interested in them. I think that one advantage of ICU’s pedagogy is that you can choose any courses that you want to take.
But in my third year, I started to be able to choose the courses that I found interesting. It was easy to stay focused. Some of those topics were so fascinating. I still remember them today, 20 years later. Because it was so interesting, I paid attention, and I was very focused. Because of that, I did well, but I’m also able to remember what I learned. And 20 years later, I’m a professor now, I still use or at least reference what I learned as an undergrad student. So, I think university education is great in the sense that you have so much freedom. Make good use of that freedom, and study what you want to study.
I think, with such a variety of different topics, classes, and majors you can choose from, there must be something that catches your attention. Learn also to persevere. When I was in university, we didn’t have smartphones, computers, and Wi-Fi. So, the ways we dealt with boredom were very different. Now, you can pick up your phone, but back then, I didn’t have that option. So instead, I would bring a book or newspaper, and read them. It’s a very different kind of life and lifestyle. I think it might be an issue when we can’t deal with boredom and we keep running away. That makes it harder and harder for you to have control over your attention. When you can’t concentrate, you can’t do great things. The most valuable and meaningful things in life require attention and concentration.
ーー Professor Chan, Thank you so much for your time!