How far would you go to avoid being alone with your thoughts?
People vastly prefer passive activities like reading or listening to music over spending just a few minutes by themselves. Being alone with no distractions was so distasteful to two-thirds of men and a quarter of women that they elected to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit quietly in a room with nothing but the thoughts in their heads, according to a study from the University of Virginia.
While the ability to mentally detach is unique to humans, it’s not often done, the researchers said. In a hyper-connected world with constant Internet access and entertainment options, U.S. Department of Labor data show 83 percent of Americans don’t spend any part of their day just thinking. The series of 11 experiments detailed in the journal Science show the extent people will go to avoid the experience.
“Our intuition was that this shouldn’t be so hard,” said Timothy Wilson, the lead researcher and a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “We kept being surprised by our own results. A few people did enjoy it, but for most, not so much.”
Researchers initially asked a group of 146 college students to sit in an empty room without books, mobile phones or any distractions and provided these simple instructions: stay in your seat, stay awake and entertain yourself with your own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes.
It was harder than they expected. Most students reported that their minds wandered. Also, they were bored. A follow up effort found similar results when students were asked to go through the same steps in a quiet room at home. They were even less likely to enjoy the experience. One-third cheated by listening to music, playing on a mobile phone or moving around.
‘Opportunities to Engage’
“The mind evolved to solve problems in the world, to look for dangers and opportunities to engage,” Wilson said. “If everything is turned off from the external world, it’s hard for people to direct their thoughts for any length of time.”
While most of the work was done with college students, the researchers recruited participants from a church and a farmer’s market to test the theory in older people. The results didn’t stem from a generation gap. There was no evidence that any group, based on age, education, income or social media usage, was more likely to appreciate time spent in reflection.
The researchers pushed even further, concluding that it may take negative stimulation to get the participants to embrace having time to think. In this case, they evaluated whether volunteers would prefer an unpleasant activity -- an electric shock -- rather than no activity at all.
This time participants were left alone in a room with access to a device to jolt them with an electric shock from a 9 volt battery. All had previously given themselves a test shock as part of the experiment so they wouldn’t choose it out of curiosity. They deemed it painful and said they would pay to avoid experiencing it again.
A dozen men, or 67 percent of the group, gave themselves at least one and as many as four shocks, as did 6 of 24 women. The male inclination to deliver the shock most likely stemmed from a higher sensation seeking drive, the researchers said.
“What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid,” they said.
The most telling participants said they were bored, and giving themselves a shock was better than being bored, Wilson said.
“Maybe the mind is built to exist in the world, and people would prefer to have a negative experience rather than none at all,” he said.