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A Physiological Model of Boredom and its Relationship with Depression: A research Proposal


Based on empirical evidence that suggests that failing to recognize a stimulus as emotionally relevant results in hypoactivity of the orexinergic cells in the hypothalamus, this article proposes a physiological model of boredom that makes depression a consequence of a chronic reduction of monoamines in the brain combined with increased levels of norepinephrine and cortisol. The studies proposed here look to find supportive evidence for two assumptions of this model: 1. That the negative affect associated with boredom results from a conscious assessment of the situation; 2. That activity of the orexinergic neurons can increase both positive and negative affect, depending on the assessed valence of a stimulus.

A Physiological Model of Boredom and its Relationship with Depression

A recent longitudinal study that followed a group of Spaniards through eight-and-a-half years (Sánchez-Villegas, Ruíz-Canela, Gea, Lahortiga, & Martínez-González, 2016) proposes that adherence to a Mediterranean lifestylereduces the likelihood of depression, as far as fifty percent for the most committed individuals. Per this study, the most prominent benefits from following a Mediterranean lifestyle, defined as high in adherence to a Mediterranean diet, as well as to high in physical and social activities, come mostly from increased physical and social activity (Sánchez-Villegas et al., 2016). I speculate that the particular circumstances of Spanish societies, with high urban density, which promotes pedestrian traffic, rich in culture, and high in social activities, leaves little time for the typical Spaniard to get bored and therefore, depressed.

Empirical research suggests that boredom has indeed a positive, strong association with depression (German & Latkin, 2012; Goldberg, Danckert, 2013; Isacescu, Struk, Danckert, 2016; Mercer-Lynn, Hunter, & Eastwood, 2013; Spaeth, Weichold, & Silbereisen, 2015; Tilburg & Igou, 2017). Boredom also correlates with a number of negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, hostility, (Isacescu et al., 2016; Tilburg & Igou, 2017), anxiety (Fahlman, Mercer, Gaskovski, Eastwood, & Eastwood, 2009), and aversive states such as motor impulsiveness (Mercer-Lynn, Flora, Fahlman, & Eastwood, 2011), life dissatisfaction, and lack of life meaning (Fahlman et al., 2009; Mercer-Lynn et al., 2011).

Here, I present a physiological model of boredom that explains its link with depression and propose two studies which could provide supporting evidence for the model.



Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek’s (2012) define boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” (p. 482) and make it a consequence of an individual’s realization of her failure to focus her attention on a present activity.

Coming from a functional perspective that makes emotions indicators of progress toward a goal, Bench and Lench (2013) propose that boredom is a discrete emotion that results from “a diminishing emotional response to the [current] situation” (p. 461). Thus, for Bench and Lench (2013) boredom becomes a cause for, rather than a consequence of, reduced attention. Bench and Lench (2013) argue that boredom’s function is to serve as a signal that it is time to pursue a different goal. Accordingly, attention to one’s present situation will depend on one’s subjective measure of its relevance to one’s particular goals, as well as one’s mood, disposition, and cognitive skills. Congruent with this, Spaeth et al. (2015) speculate that the neural changes throughout puberty make children less able to cope with inadequate stimulation and thus more prone to experience boredom and with the negative affect associated with boredom. Goldberg and Danckert (2013) ran a study that offers support to this hypothesis. They found a positive relation between boredom proneness and depression which was stronger in those patients with moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injuries. Their findings suggest that failure to recognize the stimuli in the external environment as relevant and, therefore, worthy of one’s attention, is what causes boredom. Hence, what a child finds boring an adult may not and vice-versa. Then again, if boredom arises as other emotions fade, as Bench and Lench (2013) propose, boredom cannot be an emotion, but the lack of emotion. Likewise, rather than a signal for a need to change one’s present activity, boredom should be the absenceof a signal to continue being engaged—the signal being the recognition of a stimulus as either an impending threat or a potential reward, both of which circumstances would demand increased attention.

If boredom originates from an individual’s realization of her inability to sustain her attention on the task at hand as Eastwood et al. (2012) propose, boredom cannot be a discrete emotion either, but a mixture of cognitive considerations and feelings born from an individual’s assessment of her present situation as unrewarding. Since mind-wandering follows a loss in attention and does not necessarily entails negative affect (Eastwood et al., 2012), a state of mind-wandering cannot be part of a state of boredom, either, because boredom necessarily entails negative affect. I propose, then, that boredom, as an aversive state, will only occur when to an emotionally “neutral” state, follows the conscious desire to engage in a more rewarding activity combined with one’s perceived inability to abandon the present task—the “wanting, but being unable” from Eastwood et al.’s (2012) definition. Accordingly, the negative affect associated with boredom will be a consequence of an individual’s assessment of her present situation as meaningless. Consequently, under circumstances in which attention can be readily shifted from irrelevant (or no longer relevant) stimuli to stimuli that will provoke an emotional response—as when, for instance, one browses through a series of photographs and as the interest for one fades another one captures our attention—boredom will likely not occur. Similarly, should an individual’s goal be to reduce her emotional response to the environment, as when she tries to rest or willingly engages in mind wandering, a state of boredom should not occur either.

For this to be true, an experience of boredom should be preceded by reduced physiological responses: low arousal, decreased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, mind wandering, and an initial reduction on the production of the monoamines associated with arousal, followed by high arousal, as the individual assesses one’s present circumstances as “boring” and thus as a stressor, increasing the release of norepinephrine and the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Recent empirical evidence suggests that this is the case.


The Physiology of Boredom

Merrifield and Danckert (2013) ran an experiment attempting to describe the psychophysiological signature of boredom as a state of low or high arousal by measuring changes in heart rate, skin conductance, and cortisol levels, and comparing these changes to changes reported during induced states of increased interest or sadness. Merrifield and Danckert (2013) found that experiencing boredom led to lower skin conductance than when experiencing increased interest or sadness, which they associated with a decrease in attention, and thus low arousal. Boredom also led to higher heart rate and cortisol levels than when experiencing sadness, however. Merrifield and Danckert (2013) interpreted this as a higher response from the autonomic system to stress and thus high arousal. Furthermore, Merrifield and Danckert (2013) found that individuals with a higher proneness to boredom showed higher changes in heart rate, suggesting that these individuals were more distressed by a boring experience.

Likewise, studies that use measures of brain activity through EEG and fMRI as proxies for attention found that inducing a state of boredom leads to decreased neural activity. Tabatabaie et al. (2014) ran an experiment that exposed the participants to various pieces of music and compared the participants’ self-reports of boredom assessment with EGG readings of their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity. They found that the measured Beta 2 power activity (16-20 Hz) was significantly lower for those participants that assessed the music pieces as boring, a finding that implies lower cognitive processing.

The association between arousal and attention suggests that the hypothalamus, which indirectly regulates sleep, must be involved in recognizing stimuli as emotionally relevant.

Because of its extensive connections throughout the brain, specifically with the amygdalae, the cerebral cortex, the preoptic area, as well as the ventral tegmental area, and the areas that produce monoamines in the brain stem and forebrain (Mileykovskiy, Kiyashchenko, & Siegel, 2005), the hypothalamus plays an essential role in regulating motivational processes by producing orexin, a peptide that works as a neurotransmitter increasing appetite, arousal, and wakefulness (Calipari & España, 2012; Mahler, Moorman, Smith, James, Aston-Jones, 2014; Numan & Woodside, 2010), as well as in regulating responses to stress by producing corticotropin releasing hormone, which indirectly promotes the production of corticoids (Numan & Woodside, 2010).

Using antidromic and orthodromic electrical stimulation of the axonal connections of the hypothalamus with the ventral tegmental area and the locus coeruleus, Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) identified the location of several hundred orexinergic neurons in the perifornical and lateral areas of the hypothalami in rats. Then, using micro-wire insertions on nine of these orexinergic cells, they measured their electrical activity and found a negative correlation between the firing of these neurons and EEG spectral power in the Delta (under 3 Hz), Theta (4-8 Hz), Alpha (8-12 Hz), and Beta (13-30 Hz) frequency waves as measured in the prefrontal cortices of the rats, as well as a positive correlation between the firing of the orexinergic neurons with EEG measures produced by arousal (i.e., exploratory behavior) that increased desynchronization and the power of the Gamma (30-75 Hz) frequency waves. That is, they found that the activity of the orexinergic neurons correlated with increased cortical activity. Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) hypothesized that the firing of orexinergic neurons in the hypothalamus occurs in response to emotionally arousing conditions and to promote attention.

The findings from another experiment that measured the activity of the hypothalami through fMRI reached similar conclusions. Karlsson et al. (2010) exposed participants to funny and sad images and found that the regions corresponding to orexinergic neurons in the hypothalami activated in response to the valence of the funny or sad stimuli but not in response to the neutral stimuli. Karlsson et al. (2010) also found that this activation corresponded to ipsilateral activation of the amygdalae.

If orexin indirectly regulates sleep by inhibiting the activity of sleep producing neurons in the ventrolateral preoptic area, which in turn inhibit the activity of the arousal system (Carlson, 2013), could the negative affect associated with boredom be a consequence of the impossibility to fall asleep? After all, boredom leads to lethargy. Mahler et al. (2014) propose that the role of orexin in regulating behavior extends beyond promoting wakefulness and so, they link the secretion of orexin to reward-seeking and adaptive activities in addition to circadian rhythms. Mahler et al.’s (2014) model proposes that orexinergic neurons, because of the heterogeneity of their efferent and afferent axonal projections, serve an integrative role in regulating behavior by increasing their rate of firing whenever a stimulus is recognized as a sign for action, correspondingly affecting the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the amygdala, the medial prefrontal cortex, the ventral tegmental area, as well as the brain stem and the forebrain to provoke a series of behavioral and physiological responses appropriate to the situation. Here may lie the relationship between boredom and depression. Upon recognition of a stimulus as emotionally irrelevant, orexinergic hypoactivity will reduce the secretion of monoamines, including those whose shortage in the extracellular fluid has been associated with lack of motivation and depression: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (Calipari & España, 2012; Walling, Nutt, Lalies, & Harley, 2004; Wingen, Kuypers, Ven, Formisano, & Ramaekers, 2008), as well as acetylcholine (Villano et al., 2017) resulting in a loss of attention and potentially inducing a state of mind-wandering. Upon becoming aware of this loss of attention and unable to engage in a more rewarding activity, the individual may assess the previously irrelevant stimulus as a stressor. As a result, the orexinergic neurons will stimulate the secretion of norepinephrine by the locus coeruleus as well as the secretion of corticotropin-releasing-hormone by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus into the pituitary gland, which in turn will secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone, ultimately elevating the levels in the blood of cortisol as well as of epinephrine, through indirect activation of the adrenal medulla. High levels of cortisol as well as low levels of monoamines, but especially serotonin, have been associated with depression (Herbert, 2013; Wingen et al., 2008).

There is extensive empirical evidence of the effect that orexin has on the production of acetylcholine and monoamines as well as the effect of these on attention. Liu, Van den Pol, and Aghajanian, (2002) electrically stimulated orexinergic neurons in rat brain slices causing postsynaptic responses in the serotonergic neurons in the raphe nuclei. In a review on the effect of orexin-producing neurons on the basal forebrain cholinergic system, Villano et al. (2017) mention that orexin secretion reaches a maximum at wake but also in response to stimuli that increases positive affect, while socializing, and during episodes of anger, fomenting the release of acetylcholine by the basal forebrain in the cortex. Similarly, in a series of experiments that measured the development of substance dependence in mice and rats, Calipari and España (2012) found that injecting orexin directly into the rats’ ventral tegmental area, made the release of dopamine caused by the consumption of cocaine rise dramatically in comparison to the levels of dopamine observed in rats treated with an orexin inhibitor, SB-334867. Calipari and España (2012) also found that increased levels of orexin increased a rat’s willingness to work for drugs, while orexin knock-out mice developed less dependence to addictive substances, further supporting the integrative role of orexin in regulating reward-seeking behavior. Walling et al. (2004) found that infusing orexin into the locus coeruleus promoted the secretion of norepinephrine in the hippocampus, causing long-lasting potentiation in the dentate gyrus. Recently Unsworth and Robison (2017) found that variabilities in the production of norepinephrine in the locus coeruleus correlated with variabilities in working memory and that low working memory individuals had more attentional failures and episodes of mind-wandering during activities that required a high attentional effort.

In summary, and to reconcile Eastwood et al.’s (2012) definition of boredom with its argued functionality, as proposed by Bench and Lench (2013), and with Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) and Mahler et al. (2014) hypotheses of orexin function, I propose that:

  1. The inability to recognize one’s present activity as emotionally relevant (i.e., as a threat or a reward) lowers the activity of the orexinergic cells in the lateral hypothalamus, which causes a reduction in the amount of the monoamines secreted in the brain, resulting in a loss of attention and reduced motivation.
  2. This loss of attention leads the brain to a temporary state of mind wandering.
  3. As the individual becomes aware of this attentional failure but also of her inability to re-engage, she will now recognize the present situation as toxic, leading to a rise in the levels of stress hormones.

Boredom could be defined then, as either the cause and the consequence of the loss of attention, and thus as a mental process that involves reduction of affect, mind wandering, then an increase in negative affect, or as the consequence of a loss of attention, and thus, as a mental state purely associated with negative affect. Either way, in the long run, chronic boredom, as it may result from a life poor in rewarding stimuli, may cause depression-like symptoms.

Orexinergic cells hypoactivity would explain as well why a bored individual will show not only demotivation but also increased hostility and impulsivity since these behaviors have been associated with a reduction in serotonin and its interaction with dopamine (Seo, Patrick, Kennealy, 2008). This supports the idea that boredom can lead to risky behavior such as drug and alcohol addiction, gambling (Eastwood et al., 2012), delinquency, and promiscuity. For instance, in an experiment with mink, Meagher and Mason (2012) found that mink kept in impoverished environments made faster contact with aversive, rewarding or ambiguous stimuli (e.g., a predator silhouette, a moving toothbrush, or a candle) than mink kept in rich environments, and that mink kept in an impoverished cage also spent more time exploring ambiguous stimuli. Although experiments like this support the hypothesis that boredom leads to impulsivity as well as preference for novel stimuli, including those involving potential risk, recent empirical evidence suggests that the association of boredom with increased risk is mild at best (German & Latkin, 2012; Mercer & Eastwood, 2010; Mercer-Lynn et al., 2013; Spaeth et al., 2015), and that this association is modulated by gender, age, temperament (Spaeth et al., 2015), and sensibility to reward (Mercer & Eastwood, 2010), or, in the case of sexually risky behavior, by the concurrence with depression (German & Latkin, 2012) or lack of social connectedness (Chaney & Chang, 2005). Furthermore, a recent study by Tilburg and Igou (2016) found that individuals in an induced state of high boredom were more willing to engage in prosocial activities than individuals in a state of low boredom. Tilburg and Igou (2016) findings suggest that while bored individuals may become more impulsive, they actively discriminate among alternative activities rather than simply wishing to engage in any new activity as Bench and Lench (2013) had suggested.


The Studies Proposed

A physiological model of boredom based on the activity of the orexinergic neurons makes two assumptions: 1. That the negative affect associated with a state of boredom results from a subjective measure of the experience, and thus that boredom is a conscious mental state; 2. That the activity of the orexinergic neurons causes a change in the valence of affect reliant on an individual’s assessment of a stimulus—as either a threat or a reward—and, therefore that there must be two (or more) corresponding pathways for affect.


Study 1: Boredom as a Conscious State

As proposed above, boredom cannot be a discrete emotion but a conscious state which results from assessing the present situation as toxic. Thus,

Hypothesis 1.1: Individuals exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus will show lower activation of the prefrontal cortex as indicated by a predominance of lower frequency bands in EEG readings

Hypothesis 1.2: Individuals exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus yet allowed to engage into mind wandering freely will present lower levels of stress hormones (i.e., salivary cortisol) than those individuals who are also exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus but dissuaded from engaging into mind-wandering.


Methods, participants, and design.

The participants will be chosen among individuals with similar demographics and no hearing impairments, then divided into a treatment and a control group at random.

Both groups will listen for twenty minutes to a piece of text as it is read by a computer. This could be done by using the text-to-speech capabilities of a smartphone and headphones. The text will be previously chosen as boredom inducing, for instance, by choosing an academic article beyond the participants’ competence. Their levels of salivary cortisol will be measured before and after the experiment takes place, and their cortical brain activity recorded through an EEG cap. Their heart rate will be measured as well, throughout the reading. Since wearing an EEG cap could make the participants nervous, the experiment should not begin until their heart rate is normal.

Participants in the control group will be told that the study intends to measure the efficacy of artificial speech on transmitting a message and thus that they should pay careful attention to the text. While they listen, these participants will sit on a chair that does not allow them to be too comfortable and allowed to take control the flow of the text as it is read, in case they miss something important. The researcher will remain in the room with the participants to monitor their experience but will not make verbal contact with them or allow them to talk among themselves.

Participants in the treatment group will be told that the study intends to see whether artificial speech can “fool” their brains into thinking that the text is being read by a real person and that the researchers will be able to interpret this from the EEG readings, so that the participants should not feel pressured to pay attention. The participants will be invited to lie down on a couch and be left alone while the experiment lasts so that they do not feel intimidated by the presence of the researcher.

After finishing the experiment, the participants will be debriefed and dismissed.


Results and discussion

The EEG readings of the participants of both groups will be compared. I expect to find frequent periods of low activation of the prefrontal cortex indicated by a predominance of Alpha (8-12 Hz), and Beta 1 power (12.5-16 Hz) frequency waves over higher frequency waves in both the treatment and control groups. However, I expect the periods of low-frequency waves to be much more frequent in the treatment group, those who would be allowed to engage in mind-wandering.

The measures of salivary cortisol will also be compared. I expect to find that the levels of salivary cortisol will be significantly lower in the treatment group.

Should the results be as predicted, the findings of this study will offer support to the idea that the aversive experience of boredom is a mental state reliant on a conscious assessment of the situation.


Study 2: Distinct Pathways of Affect.

In a study that attempted to map the neural pathways of affect, Mathiak, Klasen, Zvyagintsev, Weber, & Mathiak (2013) subjected the participants to alternate episodes of flow and boredom while playing a video game and analyzed the participant’s brain activity through fMRI. Mathiak et al. (2013) found two distinct networks which they associated with positive and negative affect. Increased positive affect correlated negatively with activation of the amygdala and the insula, while negative affect correlated positively with increased activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and negatively with increased activity of the hippocampus. Unfortunately, their study did not explore activation of the lateral hypothalamus. What role do orexinergic neurons play in defining the valence of affect?

To date, researchers have discovered two types of Orexin: A and B, as well two types of receptors, OX1and OX2. Orexin-A has an almost equal binding affinity with both receptors (Gotter, Webber, Coleman, Renger, & Winrow, 2012), while Orexin-B has a high affinity with OX2receptors but between 10 to 100 times less affinity with the OX1receptors (Ammoun et al., 2003). That is, OX1receptors will bind mostly with Orexin-A but not with Orexin-B, while OX2receptors will bind with either type of orexin. The tuberomammillary nucleus, which produces histamine, has mostly OX2receptors, and thus responds to either type of orexin. The laterodorsal and pedunculopontine tegmental nuclei in the brainstem, which produce acetylcholine, have both kinds of receptors, and so does the ventral tegmental area, which produces dopamine, as well as the raphe nuclei, which produces serotonin; hence, all these areas respond to either type of Orexin as well. The locus coeruleus, which produces norepinephrine, has mostly OX1receptors (Gotter et al., 2012), and so does the cortex. What this suggests is that secretion of Orexin-A will excite cholinergic, noradrenergic, serotonergic, and histaminic neurons, but the secretion of Orexin-B will mostly fail to excite noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus, which chiefly expresses OX1receptors, and will produce lower excitation of the ventral tegmental area and the raphe nuclei as well. Some researchers propose that, rather than positive and negative affect pathways, the axonal projections of the orexinergic neurons may involve arousal, via the OX2 receptors, and reward-seeking, via the OX1receptors, pathways (Baimel et al., 2014; Gotter et al., 2012).

It has been proposed, as well, that recognition of a stimulus as aversive or not depends on the integration of the hypothalamus with the amygdala. Kim and Han (2016) found that subjecting mice to a condition of high stress by restraining them for 2 hours every day for 14 days reduced their levels of sociability and increased their immobility in tail suspensions and forced swim tests compared to controls, suggesting that the restrained mice developed depressive symptoms. Upon analysis of the mice brain’s, Kim and Han (2016) found that the basolateral amygdalae of the stressed mice had increased the number of OX1receptors. Kim and Han (2016) also found that injecting either orexin or melanin-concentrating hormone (also produced in the lateral hypothalamus) in the amygdalae replicated the symptoms induced by stress. In similar experiments, Arendt et al. (2014) found that inducing chronic defeat in mice increased the number of OX1receptors and decreased the number of OX2receptors in the basolateral amygdalae of susceptible animals. Arendt et al. (2014) concluded that OX2receptors in the basolateral amygdala could help in alleviating anxiety and panic symptoms while OX1receptors have the opposite effect. Since OX2receptors bind with either type of orexin while OX1receptors bind mostly with Orexin-A, these findings suggest that emotional valence may depend on the proportion in which the orexinergic neurons secrete Orexin-A and -B peptides. Thus,

Hypothesis 2.1: Administering an Orexin-B agonist to individuals before exposing them to stimuli that increases the reactivity of their hypothalamus will significantly improve their mood compared to controls.


Methods, participants, and design.

My knowledge of psychopharmacology is quite limited. Thus, this proposed study works under the assumption that administering an Orexin-B agonist such as 7,8-Dihydroxyflavone (DHF) to humans is safe. I propose the use of this agonist based on the findings of Feng, Akladious, Hu, Raslan, Feng, and Smith (2015), which showed that administering DHF to mice resulted in an increase of Orexin-B and a decrease of Orexin-A in their hypothalamic tissue.

Participants will be chosen among individuals with similar demographics and divided at random into two groups. Before treatment, the mood of the participants in both groups will be assessed via a mood assessment test such as the Mood Self-Assessment Quiz from the NHS which can be found online at Their levels of salivary cortisol will be measured as well.

Individuals in the treatment group will receive safe doses of DHF one hour before the experiment begins. Individuals in the control group will be administered a placebo. Then, individuals from both groups will watch a movie chosen by its capacity to arouse both positive and negative affect, for instance, Life is Beautiful(Benigni, 1997). After ending the movie, the participants’ moods will be measured again as well as their salivary cortisol levels. They will be then debriefed and dismissed.


Results and discussion.

The mood scores and the levels of salivary cortisol of both groups will be compared. I expect to find a more significant improvement in the mood of the participants in the treatment group as well as lower levels of salivary cortisol. This would suggest that increased binding of Orexin-B with OX2receptors combined with stimulating activities can help decrease depression-like symptoms.



While no one factor can explain the occurrence of mood disorders, empirical evidence suggests that depression has a positive association with boredom. Modern western societies put a higher value on privacy than communality, opting for urban designs that foment isolation and thus, more frequent episodes of boredom. Similarly, education practices are frequently monotonous, demotivating students. The model presented here suggests that boredom acts as a stressor on the central nervous system, and, consequently, that the lack of stimulating events can increase an individual’s likelihood of suffering depression. For certain individuals, increasing the number of social activities or choosing a media diet that by its rich emotional content will cause hyperactivity of the orexinergic system may reduce the need to resort to anxiolytic drugs for the treatment of depression.



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Maybe Neo-Nazis are just dead bored.

I watched this video today, and I think there’s something important to learn from it.

The poor idiot claims he’s doing it for fun. I’m inclined to believe him—which is not a justification; I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him but trying to understand the reason behind his behavior. Later he says that he’s been in jail and that he enjoys offending people. I’m speculating here, but if he told the truth and he was once in jail at such young age, probably he’s poor and uneducated. In other words: powerless. And if he gets his kicks from being offensive it is because that may be the only way he feels in control. He finds meaning on causing a reaction, even a negative reaction.

Where did he learn to behave like that? There’s a part of violence that is innate, of course, but we live in a society where violence has become increasingly costly. Violent individuals risk punishment, condemnation, and ostracism—not to mention the wrath from Twitter. This guy barely escaped a beating. Why then does he behave like a jackass? My guess is, as he swiftly confesses, because he’s bored. Yes, he may be an idiot too, but being an idiot doesn’t make him engage in reckless behavior, being an idiot simply prevents him from foreseeing the consequences of engaging in reckless behavior. Boredom is what forces him to find his kicks in violence. Boredom signals the brain to look for a different goal because the current one is not rewarding enough or even toxic. Any goal! Even destructive behavior like consuming drugs, skipping school or attending a Neo-Nazi rally.

Combine boredom with the way we acquire most of our knowledge: by consuming mass media. Is media doing a good job educating us? The problem will only get worse with automation when millions find themselves with nothing to do but consume more media.

When I was eight years old, I was called to see the school psychologist. He asked me to make a drawing. Guessing I shouldn’t draw a My Little Pony and expose myself as a sissy I draw the manliest thing I could think of: the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I put particular attention on the Confederate Flag on the roof. I didn’t mention that I found the Duke Boys sexy, I just let the man wearing glasses think I was as manly as any other boy my age, and fascinated by cars and adventure. That’s what the General Lee meant to me: manliness. I rated manliness positively, so you could say I had a positive attitude toward the Confederate Flag too. It didn’t mean oppression and slavery to me — I was eight, I had no idea!

My attitude had a function: liking the General Lee made me appear manly in front of others, which was necessary for my survival. Back then, I would have rejected anyone’s arguments trying to convince me that the General Lee was a bad influence, but maybe I would have been opened to hear that liking My Little Pony was okay for a boy.

We should ask ourselves: What function does a Neo-Nazi attitude serve? Telling them they’re dead wrong isn’t enough. They probably know they’re wrong, but they stick to their wrong ideas for a reason. Why?

And then, where are they getting those ideas from? Could it be from media that tends to underrepresented minorities and glorify aggression? I’m not talking only about Fox News. Take this year’s Atomic Blonde, a beautifully shot, superbly directed all praise for violence. The film has a twist at the end trying to convince us that Charlize Theron’s character is not only incredibly beautiful and resilient but incredibly smart and cunning too. Well, if she were that smart she wouldn’t have risked her own life just to kill all those people. Yet we are too engrossed in the narrative to question her motives. Narratives reduce counter-arguing, that’s why they’re so persuasive. We get too busy interpreting the events in a narrative that there’s little cognitive power left behind to judge its meaning.

Take “irresponsible” Prissy, from Gone With the Wind, to go back to a classic example. In one scene, Prissy gets slapped for lying to Scarlett O’Hara about knowing how to deliver babies. Because we are transported by the story and are seeing it through the eyes of Scarlett, who’s alone and dead worried about Melanie, we agree with the slapping. However, as a commenter says on YouTube, Prissy has no reason to “give a damn about either of those two white bitches.” Why should she? Prissy is only a teenager and a domestic slave. She’s a fictional character of course, but slaves like her were probably beaten often, starved, separated from their family, and received no compensation for their work. Why should she feel sympathy for her oppressors? Nevertheless, because it is Scarlett’s and not Prissy’s story the one we follow, and because we’re too busy worrying what will happen next—will Melanie survive?—we don’t stop to ponder over Prissy’s motives.

The point is, we are bored, we are powerless, and we acquire most of our knowledge from narratives that may be distorting reality but at the same time are so engaging that they limit our capability for critical thinking. Punching nazis may temporarily improve our mood but won’t solve the problem. The obvious answer is education, but education tends to be incredibly boring too. What we need is our education system to learn from the entertainment industry on how to become more engaging so that destructive behavior doesn’t become a way to escape boredom. And we need entertainers to become more educated too, so they can create better content.


Oy vey, I finished my Master’s in Media Psychology


Here’s the link to the video

Here’s a link the PDF A cross-Theoretical Model of Persuasion – Carlos Allende Final Capstone for those of you interested on reading the whole paper or checking references.

Changing the World One Meme at a Time


If a friend asked you to photocopy the photo of a man someone told her is a murderer and then distribute it among all your friends and acquaintances with the specific purpose of ruining that man’s reputation, you probably wouldn’t say yes, would you? Even if your friend offered to release you of most of the burden by paying for the photocopies and distributing them herself using your contact list, the fear of committing slander would prevent you from spreading what may not be but a malicious rumor. And yet, we spread unconfirmed claims among the members of our social network all the time, whenever we share a meme without confirming first whether the information it contains is correct: Roma stealing babies, corrupt politicians, presumed rapists and pedophiles of a certain ethnicity, selfish celebrities. We call attention on reprehensible attitudes basing our judgment not on concrete evidence and logical arguments, but in one evocative image and a few stirring words.

The present paper attempts to explain what makes us agree with the content of a meme and persuades us to share it in the absence of strong evidence to justify its claims.

An internet meme is an image, usually accompanied by text, that is copied and spread rapidly through the internet (Oxford Dictionary). Memes tend to be humorous. Some are innocuous like the “I has feet” lizard (Rahimi, Pinterest), but some are inflammatory, like this one from the British National Party (BNP) implying that the refugees taken by Germany are a threat to the UK (BNP Facebook post, 2015).

According to the Reasoned Action Theory (RAT), volitional behavior, or intention, is a function of four determinants: “one’s attitude toward the behavior in question, one’s injunctive norm, one’s descriptive norm, and perceived behavioral control” (O’Keefe, 2015; p. 99). Based on this model we can express a meme’s power to persuade viewers about the veracity of its content and worthiness to be shared as a function of the viewers’ ability to both understand its message and share it (the perceived behavioral control in the RAT model); the viewers’ attitude towards the subject portrayed within the message, and the viewers’ perceived norms, i.e. the public’s opinion.

Since the viewers’ ability to understand a meme and the perceived capability to share it are conditions sine qua non to change intention, we explain their effect first.

We have a natural need for cognition (O’Keefe, 2015). That’s why we spend hours at a time following the thoughts of strangers in Twitter and browsing our friends’ posts in Facebook. Yet “we have very little attentional capacity,” (Ware, 2010; Kindle Location 192) and tend to avoid high elaboration, in order to save time and energy (Ware, 2010), especially when the matter has little relevance to us, as the elaboration likelihood model predicts (O’Keefe, 2015). Now, because most memes consist of only one image and one or two lines of text, they require a minuscule effort to process. We may not be willing to invest our time reading or listening to arguments that attempt to convince us that Obama is a terrible president, especially when we think he’s not, but reading a meme with a similar argument not only is easy but almost unavoidable when it appears in our news feed. Reading a meme is a bottom-up process in the sense that we get tuned to interpret it (Ramsøy, 2014). Avoiding it requires a conscious effort. Its distinct image pops out “because of automatic mechanisms operating prior to the action of attention” (Ware, 2010; Kindle Locations 680-681) resulting from the parallel processing within the visual areas of the brain, leading us next to read the accompanying text, then to decide whether we agree or not with its message, and if we do, whether to share it or not. Because of the affordances of social media (see Ellison, Steinfeld, Lampe & Vitak, 2011), the perceived capability to share is almost a given: it takes one click[1].

Seeing a meme is also a top-down process, though, in the sense that we are drawn to read memes based on our previous experience with other memes: many are just fun to read and it is the promise to have a good laugh that makes us pay attention.

Simplicity is not enough, however, for a meme to successfully convey its message and persuade us to spread it. The concepts implied must be understood, and because memes are by definition, very brief, this understanding depends heavily on our semantic memory, our “general knowledge about the world, concepts, language, and so on” (Eysenck & Keane 2010; p. 255). A Scumbag Steve meme (See Samjowen, 2011) brings to mind a cascade of semantic concepts: millennials, men that wear jewelry, fur, and designer clothes; the naiveté implied by rosy cheeks and a slightly opened mouth, etc. Separate, all these concepts have different meanings. Brought together they imply arrogance, stupidity, self-centeredness, and conceit. Memes combine narratives and rhetoric: They use emotion and the cultural heritage of the audience as persuasive tools (Weida & Stolley, 2013). An evocative image has the power to transport us, if only for a fraction of a second, especially when we’re bored and looking to be entertained (Green & Brock, 2000) as it is often the case while using social media, and transportation can lead to a change of beliefs (Green & Brock. 2002).

Which bring us to the next determinant, attitude. Once the message is interpreted, viewers’ decide whether they agree with it. Memes do not contain strong arguments. The emotions aroused are the evidence that support their claims. While agreement with a meme’s message can be affected by transportation, mostly it depends on the viewer’s previous attitude towards the subject. According to the summative model of attitude, attitude is a function of the strength with which an individual holds a series of beliefs about a subject and his evaluation of these beliefs (O’Keefe, 2015). A meme that calls to punish presumed rapists and pedophiles, like this one (BNP Facebook post, 2014) is so blatantly racist that it may cause reasonable doubt about its veracity, but at first glance, due to transportation and in the absence of deep elaboration, the decision on whether to agree to it will depend on whether the viewer assigns a heavier weight to his rejection of rape or the need to be politically correct, since the ultimate message is one of discrimination.

Using a simpler example, a person with a positive attitude towards President Obama will most likely disagree with a meme that shows Robert Downey Jr. rolling his eyes and the accompanying text “my face, every time Obama starts talking” ( and probably will not share it, unless intended as a joke, or to raise awareness on the matter. Now, what if this same person, let’s call her Claudia, has a somewhat neutral attitude towards Obama but a positive attitude towards the actor, and the actor’s opinion weighs more in her decision than any beliefs she may hold about the President? Claudia may conclude that if Robert Downey Jr. feels that way about President Obama’s talking, Obama is probably a bore, and she may decide to share the meme. In this case, an injunctive norm, the belief that Robert Downey Jr. dislikes Obama, together with transportation, have a persuasive effect on Claudia’s decision. Granted, her belief is assumed as true due solely to heuristics: Claudia does not know the actor, but it’s in a meme, and in her experience, memes tend to contain the truth, so that must be the actor’s opinion.

How could she arrive at that conclusion? Facebook shows us first the posts from those who we explicitly mark as “show first,” and from those with whom we interact the most (Bereznak, 2014). Because we tend to connect in social media with those that are akin to us (Johnson, Zhang, Bichard, & Seltzer, 2011), the memes we get to see in our news feed come, most likely, from individuals that share our attitudes. The weight we assign to our closest friends’ opinions acts then as an injunctive norm, impelling us to agree with what they share. Likewise, the fact that a meme or a series of memes expressing similar concepts seem to be everywhere, acts as a descriptive norm. In other words, consensus has a weight in the decision whether to accept the content of a meme as true.

In conclusion, the decision whether to share or not a meme, relies on whether we agree with its content or, at least, find it relevant enough to be shared. To persuade a viewer of the veracity of their content and worthiness to be shared, memes rely on the viewers’ ability to understand their message, which is a function of the viewers’ semantic memory, previous attitudes, emotions aroused by inducing transportation, as well as other heuristics such as consensus and credibility, and internet and social media affordances, that make them incredibly easy to spread.



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  • British National Party. (2014, September 10). More than 1,400 young British girls. Retrieved February 18, 2016, from
  • Ellison, N., Lampe, C., Steinfeld, C., & Vitak, J. (2011). With a Little Help From My Friends: How Social Network Sites Affect Social Capital Processes. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. New York: Routledge.
  • Eysenck, M., & Keane, M. (2010). In Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook (6th ed.). Hove, Eng.: Psychology Press.
  • Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721.
  • Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). In the Mind’s Eye: Transportation-Imagery Model of Narrative Persuasion. In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations(pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
  • Johnson, T., Zhang, W., Bichard, S., & Seltzer, T. (2011). United We Stand? Online Social Network Sites and Civic Engagement. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. New York: Routledge.
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[1] We assume here that spreadability results from a conscious decision to share content, yet social media users actually spread content every time they find it relevant enough to interact with it: posting a comment or liking a post, makes it spread through their social network.

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