The Scarce-Capacity Theory of Boredom & Crowdsourcing. What?

The entertaining and informative folks at Freakonomics often explore topics related to how we work. When listening to their podcasts, links to crowdsourcing inevitably come to mind.

Recently (10/29/2015), Stephen J. Dubner addressed the topic of boredom, which appears to be a notion that was unheard of until after the First World War. The Brits were concerned that productivity was being affected by fatigue; but learned that repetitive behaviors were a more likely culprit, (viz, The Industrial Fatigue Research Board and Stanley Wyatt, psychologist).

It’s a good listen, available on the Freakonomics website: “Am I Boring You?”.

What does boredom have to do with contemporary work models, such as crowdsourcing?

The discussion explores the “scarce-capacity” theory of boredom, posed by George Loewenstein and studied in collaboration with Amanda Markey at Carnegie Mellon University.  You have “mental resources, they’re scarce and they’re really important and valuable, and boredom develops as this signal that mental resources are not being used wisely, they’re not being used on valuable pursuits.”

Now, doesn’t that sound exactly like a rationale for work platforms such as those of creative crowdsourcing! Bored? Do something. Create something. Earn something.

At least the opportunity is there in crowdsourcing work models. Here at Boom Ideanet, we’ve long championed the link to Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus.” And now, we can add to that rationale the argument for countering boredom through crowd-participation. Boredom may be a legitimate motivator to accept creative challenges. The creative crowdsourcing option provides talented— and possibly bored — crowd members a way to use their mental resources on valuable pursuits!

Is it worth it?

Angela Duckworth, another contributor to the story had this to add: “The argument is that we’re constantly doing a sort of cost-benefit analysis of how to spend our mental energy.” (We merely substitute the term “creative” for the word “mental.”)

Is it worth it to invest one's time, energy and talent, without an assured outcome such as income? After all we are talking about a work or labor that traditionally generates payment for services performed.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Crowdsourcing MAY offer participants benefits that outweigh the cost.

The Cost:

  1. Investment of time, energy in talent without an assured outcome — in the form of income, since we’re talking about a form of work or labor, traditionally generating payment for services performed.
  2. Controversy of “spec-like” sourcing scenarios

Benefits: 

  1. Engaging talent has a value, as in occupying one’s bored creative capacity
  2. Gaining exposure to channels, brands, audiences, that are simply different than those one engages routinely (boringly?)
  3. Individual and social currency of “winning” a challenge
  4. Cash payment — which differs based on the various crowdsourcing platforms available.
  5. Happiness -- As Dan Gilbert (Harvard psychology professor) states in the Freaknomics podcast: “People who are engaged in an activity are almost always happier than people who are not.”

Is crowdsourcing a worthwhile option? Yes.

 Of course, we think so here at Boom Ideanet. At least it’s worth a trial run. On the part of those who face challenges. And on the part of those who are happy to meet challenges. After all, isn't trial an acceptable marketing objective?

PS: We recognize the controversy around crowd-based models. The “uberization” of work is highly charged right now. Regulation may be required, which is unfortunate. Definition of terms is required, which is definite. But as long as the platform is operated with respect for the worker and the workee (why don’t we use that term?) then crowdsourcing may be as suitable a way to overcome boredom as just about any other activity. Read more on the ethical issues around crowdsourcing here.

Steve Wood

SwoodWorks, LLC, 12316 Gillette St, Overland Park, KS