M is for… Mundane

The Psychologist A to Z continues.

Suggested by Michael Apter, who is the progenitor of reversal theory

‘Psychology rarely seems to study widespread, everyday, seemingly banal phenomena. We put our subjects in organised situations with clear-cut goals and incentives, and seem to assume that people are permanently motivated to achieve things. Is it time for a psychology of doing nothing, messing around, the marvellous mundane? Aspects of mind and behaviour that, on closer inspection, reveal fundamentals about human nature? As a character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Graysays, “Unnecessary things are our only necessity”.

I’m particularly interested in the “messing around” aspect of the mundane. Doing things that do not achieve anything, such as just hanging around, being objectionable in small ways, causing unnecessary upset, doing something just to see what happens. What they have in common is that they all contrast with being purposeful, serious, apparently consequential and exciting things. But they seem to occur widely in everyday life. Messing around is a form of rest that is not restful.

In other words, messing around is a form of play, but one in which goals are minimal and short-term. If playing tennis is a form of play, just hitting the ball backwards and forwards in a desultory way without scoring points would be messing around. 

We can observe the phenomenon any time we go to the beach in the summer and watch people running in and out of the water, building sand castles, which they then knock down, and splashing each other. This is a kind of joyous messing around. What is being done is for its own sake and its immediate pleasure. It is the kind of play that Ratty in The Wind in the Willows surely had in mind: “…there is nothing –absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.” The same could be said of any hobby entered into with enthusiasm.

These and other everyday behaviors are explored in my new book Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality (Matador, 2018).’


According to James Pennebaker, ‘The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The ways people use pronouns, articles, and other everyday words are linked to their personality, honesty, social skills, and intentions.’ Read our interview online.

In a 2016 study covered on our Research Digest, Emily Walton-Pattison and colleagues at Newcastle University set out ‘a preliminary psychology of binge TV watching’.

Trevor Crawford (Lancaster University) studies in detail how people make tea, as a potential early marker of Alzheimer’s.

What’s the best way for a goalkeeper to save a penalty in football? To do (relatively speaking) nothing. So why do they nearly always dive?

Alexa Hepburn (Rutgers University) is interested in burping, as an example of children’s social infractions.


We are keen to get a special feature together on the marvellous mundane - let us know your thoughts.

- Tweet your suggestions for any letter to @psychmag using the hashtag #PsychAtoZ or email the editor on [email protected]

Entries so far are collated at https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/psychology-z

Illustration by Karla Novak

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber