Most people would rather do something external — even hurt themselves in some cases — than sit alone with their thoughts, according to new research from the University of Virginia.
The series of 11 studies, published in the journal Science, revealed that the study participants generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder, or daydream.
Instead, they far more enjoyed participating in external activities, such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to sit and think.
“Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising — I certainly do — but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” said University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson.
The period of time that the participants were asked to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college students, most of whom reported that this “thinking period” wasn’t very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.
“That was surprising — that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
Wilson does not particularly believe that this is the result of our fast-paced modern society, or the availability of electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to the natural human desire to always have something to do.
During the study, participants were asked to sit alone in a bare laboratory room with no cell phone, reading materials or writing tools, and to spend six to 15 minutes simply thinking. When it was over, participants were asked how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.
Most reported that it was difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar finding occurred when participants were allowed to conduct the experiment in their homes.
“We found that about a third admitted that they had ‘cheated’ at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”
The researchers took the studies further. Since most people prefer having something to do rather than think, the researchers wondered if the participants would rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all.
It turns out that many of them would. In the next study, participants were asked to sit and think, but with the added option of giving themselves a mild electric shock by pressing a button.
Twelve of the 18 men and six of the 24 females gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study’s 15-minute “thinking” period. Interestingly, all of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to not be shocked again.
“What is striking,” said the researchers, “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.”
The researchers are trying to figure out exactly why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. “Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times,” he said, “but perhaps it is most enjoyable when it happens spontaneously — it is more difficult to do on command.”
“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. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”
Source: University of Virginia