Defining and measuring boredom

Learn more about “boredom studies” here. On the definition of boredom:

Photo by Victoria Borodinova on Pexels.com

Contemporary boredom researchers, for all their scales and graphs, do engage some of the same existential questions that had occupied philosophers and social critics. One camp contends that boredom stems from a deficit in meaning: we can’t sustain interest in what we’re doing when we don’t fundamentally care about what we’re doing. Another school of thought maintains that it’s a problem of attention: if a task is either too hard for us or too easy, concentration dissipates and the mind stalls. Danckert and Eastwood argue that “boredom occurs when we are caught in a desire conundrum, wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything,” and “when our mental capacities, our skills and talents, lay idle—when we are mentally unoccupied.”

Erin Westgate, a social psychologist at the University of Florida, told me that her work suggests that both factors—a dearth of meaning and a breakdown in attention—play independent and roughly equal roles in boring us. I thought of it this way: An activity might be monotonous—the sixth time you’re reading “Knuffle Bunny” to your sleep-resistant toddler, the second hour of addressing envelopes for a political campaign you really care about—but, because these things are, in different ways, meaningful to you, they’re not necessarily boring. Or an activity might be engaging but not meaningful—the jigsaw puzzle you’re doing during quarantine time, or the seventh episode of some random Netflix series you’ve been sucked into. If an activity is both meaningful and engaging, you’re golden, and if it’s neither you’ve got a one-way ticket to dullsville.

On measuring boredom:

The interpretation of boredom is one thing; its measurement is quite another. In the nineteen-eighties, Norman Sundberg and Richard Farmer, two psychology researchers at the University of Oregon, developed a Boredom Proneness Scale, to assess how easily a person gets bored in general. Seven years ago, John Eastwood helped come up with a scale for measuring how bored a person was in the moment. In recent years, boredom researchers have done field surveys in which, for example, they ask people to keep diaries as they go about daily life, recording instances of naturally occurring lethargy. (The result of these new methods was a boon to boredom studies—Mann refers to colleagues she runs into on “the ‘boredom’ circuit.”) But many of the studies involve researchers inducing boredom in a lab setting, usually with college students, in order to study how that clogged, gray lint screen of a feeling affects people.

The study of human behavior continues. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Boredom often comes in solitary conditions. In addition to study social interactions and collective, looking at what people do on their own is worthwhile – and is connected to broader social interaction.
  2. The article mentions various dimensions of boredom as well as its persistence throughout time periods. I would be interested to hear more about how boredom has changed.
  3. In terms of measurement, why not more observational studies? If parked in a public space or granted access to living spaces, I would think researchers would have ample opportunities to see boredom. And the smartphone would seem to be a great device for tracking boredom given its ability to sense movement, keep track of particular uses, ask survey questions when boredom is sensed, etc.

The study of human behavior continues!

Collect better data on whether Chicagoans are leaving the city

Even as there are claims 500,000 New Yorkers have left the city, a new article suggests “some” Chicago residents are leaving. The evidence:

Incidents of widespread looting and soaring homicide figures in Chicago have made national news during an already tumultuous year. As a result, some say residents in affluent neighborhoods downtown, and on the North Side, no longer feel safe in the city’s epicenter and are looking to move away. Aldermen say they see their constituents leaving the city, and it’s a concern echoed by some real estate agents and the head of a sizable property management firm.

It’s still too soon to get an accurate measure of an actual shift in population, and such a change could be driven by a number of factors — from restless residents looking for more spacious homes in the suburbs due to COVID-19, to remote work allowing more employees to live anywhere they please…

The day after looting broke out two weeks ago, a Tribune columnist strolled through Gold Coast and Streeterville. Residents of the swanky Near North Side told him they’d be moving “as soon as we can get out.” Others expressed fear of returning downtown in the future.

Rafael Murillo, a licensed real estate broker at Compass whose primary market is downtown high-rises, said he has seen a trend of city dwellers looking to move to the suburbs sooner than initially planned, due in part to the recent unrest in the city.

Three pieces of data I see i this story: aldermen reporting on actions in their districts; journalists talking to some people; and comments from people in the real estate industry. This is not that different than what is being said in New York City (plus information from moving companies).

The caveat that leads the second paragraph above – we do not have an accurate measure yet – may be correct but then it is difficult to square with the rest of the story that suggests “some” people are leaving. What we want to know is the size of this trend. Is this a trickle of people in a city that has been losing people or a recent flood? And if the numbers are larger, what exactly are the motivations of people for leaving (being pushed over the edge, fear, housing values, etc.)?

Someone could find some more certain data. Work with the local utilities to look at usage (or nonusage in units)? Traffic counts? Post office address changes? Triangulate with more data sources? If this is indeed a trend, it is an important one to highlight, explain, and discuss. But, without better data, it is hard to know what to make of it.

New and existing home sales up but…

Recent data shows both increased new and existing home sales:

Sales of new homes in the US soared to their highest level since December 2006 in July as Americans took advantage of historically low interest rates.

Single-family home sales leaped 13.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 901,000 units, according to data released by the US Census Bureau on Tuesday. Median sales price gained 7.2% to $330,600 from the year-ago period…

The better-than-expected data follows a similarly positive report on existing home sales. Sales of previously owned homes spiked a record 24.7% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.86 million last month, according to a Friday release from the National Association of Realtors. Economists anticipated a 5.41 million rate.

Some of this is not a surprise given low interest rates. There is no mention here, but if it is true that significant numbers of city-dwellers are looking elsewhere, that could be driving demand.

At the same time, this is an odd time for increased housing sales. We are in the middle of a pandemic and the uncertainty and unemployment that has brought. Some indicators of the economy are okay but others are less positive.

With that, it is hard to know whether this is more of a blip or a long-term trend. Perhaps this is part of a rebound in homeownership or an odd confluence of factors in an unusual year.

And it would be helpful to have more data. The Census report suggests 61% of the private new homes sold in July 2020 were between $200k and $399k while 29% were over $400k. What kinds of homes are these and where exactly are they located (beyond regions, how about suburbs versus cities?)

Sundown towns receiving attention through show “Lovecraft Country”

A new HBO show highlights the little-known but widespread phenomena of sundown towns in Northern states:

“The first thing you need to know about sundown towns, and what Lovecraft Country gets right, is it’s not a Southern phenomenon,” Loewen tells Yahoo Life. “They’re all over the place.”

In his book, he writes, “Between 1890 and 1960, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African-Americans from living in them, creating ‘sundown towns,’” explaining that these towns “are (or were) all white by design,” and adding that, at least in part, “these facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South.”

In 2019, Heather O’Connell published a paper in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity called “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality.” In it, she wrote that “sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States,” and argued that these towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past.” But just last month, author Morgan Jerkins wrote regarding sundown towns, “With the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.”…

Loewen says that although Black people are beginning to live in areas that were once sundown towns, they still suffer from the residual effects of such violent segregation, which he calls “second-generation sundown towns.” He notes that some of their key characteristics are “an overwhelmingly white police force that engages in [Driving While Black] policing and an overwhelmingly white teaching staff,” and names Ferguson, Mo., where Black teenager Michael Brown was killed in 2014, as one of these.

Loewen found most of these communities did not have formal signs or regulations that told non-whites that had to be out of town after dark. As I noted in a recent post, making certain forms of discrimination illegal does not necessarily lead to whites wanting to live near other people or even come into contact with others as there are other means of keeping people out.

The article above also hints at how places today understand or enact these past sundown policies. My research on suburban communities suggests a past sundown status could be unknown. This makes sense: some communities would not want to broadcast this today and local histories tend to emphasize positive moments in a community’s history. Perhaps more local residents will work to make these histories known. Even if better-off suburbs today have goals and/or means to keep certain people out, it would not be said so brazenly as that might threaten their status.

More broadly, Loewen’s work focuses on portions of Americans history regularly ignored or intentionally covered up. With his work on textbooks, monuments, and sundown towns, Loewen was ahead of his time in pointing out how Americans do not cover issues of race as well as other ignoble parts of the past.

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

The role of religious buildings in combating global sameness in architecture

A look at the spread of the same architecture around the world – “glass-and-steel” – leaves out religious architecture:

Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.

The primary focus of this article appears to be architectural wonders in business districts. These buildings both reflect the primary values of today’s world – capitalism, finance, power – and dominate modern skylines. They promote a particular global order.

In contrast, religious buildings often refer to other values: transcendence, community, beauty or sacredness. They can be part of hegemony or empire or the spread of a global order. But, they can also signal space that resists oppression or injustice. And, religious buildings can both reflect international styles and/or local religious interpretations.

In the book Building Faith Bob Brenneman and I wrote, we tackle some of these issues. There are modernist religious buildings. There are international structures influenced by the architecture of Las Vegas or glitzy cities. But, there are also small congregations building humble structures, others mixing indigenous architecture and common forms of architecture in particular religious traditions, others converting one kind of structure to another, and others worshiping in more secular structures. Many of these buildings are the opposite of these international symbols of affluence and starchitects. At least in form, they present an alternative vision and with the actions of the congregation within, may actively counter hegemonic order.

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/building-faith-9780190883447?cc=us&lang=en&

Some of the issue may be that the stature of religious buildings have diminished in the center of many global cities. Whereas once religious structures sat at the middle of the city, office buildings and structures devoted came to dominate the central spaces. In Chicago, the central churches moved to quieter neighborhoods near residents and where property values were lower as business came to dominate the Loop. Even the tallest religious buildings are no match for the biggest office buildings or residential structures.

A health example of choosing between a dichotomous outcome or a continuum

When I teach Statistics and Research Methods, we talk a little about how researchers make decisions about creating and using categories for data they have. As this example of recommendations about fertility notes, creating categories can be a tricky process:

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Being 35 or older is labeled by the medical community as “advanced maternal age.” In diagnosis code speak, these patients are “elderly,” or in some parts of the world, “geriatric.” In addition to being offensive to most, these terms—so jarringly at odds with what is otherwise considered a young age—instill a sense that one’s reproductive identity is predominantly negative as soon as one reaches age 35. But the number 35 itself, not to mention the conclusions we draw from it, has spun out of our collective control…

The 35-year-old threshold is not only known by patients, it is embraced by doctors as a tool that guides the care of their patients. It’s used bimodally: If you’re under 35, you’re fine; if you’re 35 or older, you have a new host of problems. This interpretation treats the issue at hand as what is known as a “threshold effect.” Cross the threshold of age 35, it implies, and the intrinsic nature of a woman’s body has changed; she falls off a cliff from one category into another. (Indeed, many of my patients speak of crossing age 35 as exactly this kind of fall, with their fertility “plummeting” suddenly.) As I’ve already stated, though, the age-related concerns are gradual and exist along a continuum. Even if the rate of those risks accelerates at a certain point, it’s still not a quantum leap from one risk category to another.

This issue comes up frequently in science and medicine. In order to categorize things that fall along a continuum, things that nature itself doesn’t necessarily distinguish as being separable into discrete groups, we have to create cutoffs. Those work very well when comparing large groups of patients, because that’s what the studies were designed to do, but to apply those to individual patients is more difficult. To a degree, they can be useful. For example, when we are operating far from those cutoffs—counseling a 25-year-old versus a 45-year-old—the conclusions to draw from that cutoff are more applicable. But operate close to it—counseling a 34-year-old trying to imagine her future 36-year-old self—and the distinction is so subtle as to be almost superfluous.

The trade-offs seem clear. A single point where the data turns from one category to another, an age of 35, simplifies the research findings (though the article suggests they may not actually point to 35) and allows doctors and others to offer clear guidance. The number is easy to remember.

A continuum, on the other hand, might better fit the data where there is not a clear drop-off at an age near 35. The range offers more flexibility for doctors and patients to develop an individualized approach.

Deciding which is better requires thinking about the advantages of each, the purpose of the categories, and who wants what information. The “easy” answer is that both sets of categories can exist; people could keep in mind a rough estimate of 35 while doctors and researchers could have conversations where they discuss why that particular age may or may not matter for a person.

More broadly, learning more about continuums and considering when they are worth deploying could benefit our society. I realize I am comfortable with them; sociologists suggest many social phenomena fall along a continuum with many cases falling in between. But, this tendency toward continuums or spectrums or more nuanced or complex results may not always be helpful. We can decry black and white thinking and yet we all need to regularly make quick decisions based on a limited number of categories (I am thinking of System 1 thinking described by behavioral economists and others). Even as we strive to collect good data, we also need to pay attention to how we organize and communicate that data.

What the 2021 Rand McNally atlas highlights in the Chicago region

The new 2021 Rand McNally road atlas is available. Here is what they have for the Chicago region on the Illinois page (available on the preview):

RandMcNally2021Chicagoregion

As my family or I have owned a version of this atlas for many years, I have spent much time viewing this page. I can recall when new roads were added (like I-355). Here is what strikes me upon seeing the Chicago area in the 2021 version (not the more zoomed in regional map which can offer more detail):

  1. The map cannot mention the names of all of the suburbs; there is not enough room. The ones listed appear to be the suburbs larger in population mixed in with some of the communities between those.
  2. This particular map does not clearly mark the boundaries of Chicago. You can roughly see where Chicago’s edges are due to the positions of other communities. Yet, the edges of the suburbs are marked – see the orange areas versus white areas – though some of the non-suburban areas within the developed areas are oddly marked.
  3. What non-municipal features are noted is interesting. Midway Airport has a label, O’Hare does not. Four universities along the lakefront are marked but DePaul and many others in Chicago and the region are not. There are some natural features and parks visible but not many (for example, it would be very difficult to know from this map all the forest preserves present in the counties in the region).
  4. The lake is present and useful for the map because some of the labels can go off into the water rather than compete for space over land.
  5. You might be able to get a sense that the road system in the Chicago area is both easy to understand and has a complicated history. The roads are fairly straight and the main highways largely radiate out of Chicago (I-94 north, I-90 northwest, I-88 west, I-55 southwest, I-57 south). But, then there are some shorter highways, two ring highways (I-294 and I-355) but not a third one to service outer development, and the toll/non-toll options blend together.

Making this map likely required a lot of decisions as to what to include and what would help make the map readable.

Why I am excited to teach in Fall 2020

Starting up college classes in Fall 2020 is a difficult and uncertain task. Many decisions and much planning has gone into schools starting up or getting close to starting again. Here is why I am excited to be back in the classroom to start classes this next week:

Image capture from “Why Study Sociology and Anthropology at Wheaton?
  1. I am always excited for learning to begin. There is much for all of us to learn; the well-worn phrase “the more you learn, the less you know” (or some variation) is true. The start of a new class marks the beginning of a process by which an instructor and students learn together. There are a lot of other things that colleges and universities are now about but learning is at the heart of the mission. Teaching many classes at the undergraduate level means that the courses are just the start of what could become life-long conversations or projects yet there is potential to spark new interests or paths or epiphanies. Even though I have taught each of my two classes this fall semester more than ten times each, I am excited to share the material, ways of thinking, and skills with new sets of students. We have minds and bodies and we are called to put them to use in learning and then applying or living out that knowledge.
  2. Learning together. Learning is not only a solitary task; it comes to full fruition when done in community. Over sixteen weeks of classes, we will get to know each other a little better, hear alternative perspectives, and consider what it all means. Since my institution is smaller, I can know every student’s name, run into people on campus, and find opportunities to link broader or structural concepts to individual experiences. Even with masks this semester or going virtual for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, we can build relationships during class discussions, through assignments, and outside of class. By the end of the semester, it is hard to let go of a class as an instructor prepares to start the process all over again the next term.
  3. This is a critical time to address issues in society and in our world. One of the reasons I enjoy sociology is that is always applies to current circumstances and now is no different with COVID-19, a presidential election cycle, conversation and action about race, changing economies and cultures, and more. Classrooms provide spaces to explore what is happening from a particular disciplinary lens and since sociology examines all aspects of human behavior, there is much to consider (much more than we can do in any 16 week semester!). There is much for us to apply the sociological imagination to. And with a shared faith commitment on our campus, we can connect sociology’s (or other disciplines) approach to the world to our religious beliefs, belonging, and behavior.
  4. Getting back to some sort of routine. COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of daily patterns. As my campus gets back to on-campus classes, we hopefully we be able to settle into a rhythm and structure that helps us nudge us in positive directions. Living in chaotic or uncertain times is difficult for humans; we need routines and patterns. The academic calendar is one such pattern that does much to structure my own life through my own educational experiences plus now teaching. By the time August starts, I am ready for the school year to start up even as I am grateful for the change that summer brings with a more flexible schedule and time for research.

A new master plan for Chicago builds on (odd) legacies of older plans

With the announcement yesterday that Chicago will embark on a new planning process for the local government to consider, one news report included this tidbit about previous planning processes:

When finished, the document would be submitted to the plan commission and the City Council for approval. Gorski said the last such citywide plan in 1966 had official status but never got formal approval.

And from the official Chicago press release:

“While Chicago may have pioneered citywide planning with the 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago,’ this is a rare opportunity to collectively address current and future issues with a collaborative and coordinated effort with other planning entities, businesses, institutions and the people of Chicago,” DPD Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Dickhut said.

This history would be worth exploring more. Here are a few questions/issues/thoughts which I am sure someone has answered and/or explored:

  1. Why was the 1966 plan not formally approved?
  2. The gap between 1966 and today seems like a long time to not have a different master plan. Chicago has changed a lot since then. Is it safe to assume there have been a lot of smaller (district, community areas, etc.) plans developed and acted upon since 1966?
  3. The reference to the 1909 Burnham Plan is interesting in that it had limited influence on subsequent changes in Chicago or the region. It remains an influential plan yet may not be the best advertisement for a plan that led to lasting change.
  4. While the Burnham Plan is often held up as a visionary example, other Chicago planning visions or decisions may not hold up as well. For example, doing research on Cabrini-Green, I became acquainted with the story of how public housing projects came to be located where they were. Or, think of the placement of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
  5. Even if the new plan is not completed on time or is not approved or enacted, it can be a valuable process to engage numerous stakeholders from around the city to think about and discuss what they want the city to be about.
  6. Balancing the larger vision with the important minutiae to decided at the local scale will be interesting to watch. Either job would be difficult on its own.