Some People Prefer Electric Shocks to Thinking Quietly by Themselves

Some People Prefer Electric Shocks to Thinking Quietly by Themselves
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In a new study, psychologists have demonstrated that most people do not enjoy sitting and thinking quietly by themselves. In fact, some would rather shock themselves to break the humdrum of being alone with their thoughts.

In an era of incessant stimulation, 83% of Americans recently reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that they spent no time "relaxing or thinking" in the previous 24 hours. Are we simply "too busy" for such seemingly fruitless exploits? Or, is there a simpler explanation? Perhaps we just don't enjoy sitting peacefully and thinking?

The current study, led by Professor Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia and published in the journal Science, seems to support that notion.

Wilson and his team first recruited 413 college students and asked them to sit quietly with their thoughts in an unadorned room for 6 to 15 minutes. The students then rated how much they liked the activity on a scale from 1 to 9.

"On average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale," Wilson described.

The researchers then checked to see if the results would hold if subjects completed the same task at home. 200 subjects followed instructions delivered online to sit quietly for twelve minutes entertaining themselves only with their thoughts. On average, participants rated their enjoyment lower than in the laboratory setting and 32% admitted to "cheating" by listening to music or using their phone.

Okay, so college students don't particularly fancy sitting by themselves and thinking, but heck, that isn't exactly a surprise! Surely if the experiment were run with older Americans, they would have no problems sitting patiently in contemplation...

Nope. The researchers repeated the "at-home" experiment on 61 community participants with an average age of 49 recruited at a local church and farmer's market. Their enjoyment ratings were only slightly higher, and 54% cheated!

In a final experiment, Wilson and his colleagues got creative and turned sadistic. They recruited 55 students and treated them to six different stimuli -- three positive and three negative -- one of which was an electric shock. The researchers then asked the students if they would pay $5 to not experience the shock. 42 said that they would. All the subjects then moved on to the primary experiment in which they were expressly told to entertain themselves with their thoughts and nothing else for 15 minutes. But they also were told that they could shock themselves by pressing a button, if they wanted...

Of the subjects who said they would pay to not be shocked, 67% of the males and a quarter of the females went on to do just that. (Hilariously, one outlier shocked himself 190 times! He was excluded from the results.)

"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," Wilson commented.

The results of this study will certainly make the rounds at fancy dinner parties over the next couple of days, but so should some nuance. A big fact to keep in mind is that enjoyment scores for sitting and thinking alone weren't awful. On a scale of 1 to 9, they averaged roughly around 4.5 or a little lower. In other words, subjects didn't absolutely detest sitting quietly with their thoughts, they just didn't especially enjoy it. The study also didn't account for variables present in the real world like social pressure. For example, when people pull out smartphones in a public setting when disengaged or alone, they may not be avoiding their thoughts, but instead avoiding the stigma of appearing disconnected from a group.

Now, let's consider the intriguing results: Why can't Americans simply be satisfied sitting with their thoughts? Doubtless, many would heap the blame on modern technology. Comedian Louis C.K. famously called out cell phones last fall.

"You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something," he told Conan O'Brien. "That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there.”

Wilson doesn't directly blame technology, however.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," he said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world."

Source: Wilson et. al. "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind." Science JULY 2014 • VOL 345 ISSUE 6192

(Image: Shutterstock)

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