Bored? Call in the Swat team

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The Independent Online
(First Edition) A pair of academics claim to have defined the hitherto indefinable - what is boredom and who is most likely to suffer from it.

Martin Dyer-Smith and Dave Wesson of the University of Northumbria have developed a model to explain this state and a test to identify which personality types are at risk. The test could help to prevent accidents caused by lapses in attention.

The duo define boredom as a state arising when one is engaged in a task with little intrinsic interest but with some higher value or meaning, for example, sitting in a surgery waiting for an appointment but having to stay partially alert for the light to go on above the doctor's door.

In circumstances of low mental stimulation, the natural response is to slow down, allocating fewer mental resources to the demands of the moment. This cognitive gear-shift downwards can lead to one nodding off.

Last night, Martin Dyer-Smith told a fringe meeting at the annual conference of the Institute of Personnel and Development in Harrogate that some people were better at changing down a gear and allocating the appropriate amount of cognitive resources to a low-level task.

The best are defined as Wilmas (from Wilma Flintstone). They are characterised as highly diligent with average reflexes. Freds, however, allocate resources and then over-compensate. This result is a more variable performance with a greater number of lapses in attention.

In order to spot a Fred or a Wilma, the researchers have devised the Smith and Wesson mental agility test (Swat), a mind-numbingly boring test which involves responding to shapes on a computer screen.

Mr Dyer-Smith, who spent some time in the Royal Navy as a deck officer looking out to sea for anything worth avoiding, has successfully used Swat to predict the likely performance of RN deck officers and data entry clerks in undertaking boring tasks.

Finally, he says that if, after having a Swat, you turn out to be a Fred, don't worry. You may be an absent-minded genius given to flashes of brilliance one minute and periods of inactivity the next, whereas the Wilma sitting smugly next to you may never rise above (albeit consistent) mediocrity.