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"Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?”
Can you sit alone with your own thoughts for just 15 minutes? That means no smartphone, no reading material, no pen to doodle with — just sitting and thinking.
A recent study found that most people would rather experience physical pain that sit and do absolutely nothing but 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,” Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, said in a news release.
"Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?” the study authors wondered.
Yes, yes they would. This unpleasant activity for experimental purposes included giving oneself a mild electrical shock:
Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study’s 15-minute “thinking” period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.
“What is striking,” the investigators write, “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.”
Wilson and his team note that men tend to seek “sensations” more than women, which may explain why 67 percent of men self-administered shocks to the 25 percent of women who did.
Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted 11 studies — the one including the possibility for pain being one of them — on people's feelings about being alone with nothing to do.
Some of the studies were simple surveys taken after a person was asked to sit around in an empty room in a lab environment for six to 15 minutes. Others included conducting the same experiment but in the study participants' home environments, and the researchers also expanded study participants' age to see if that was a factor.
Overall, no one liked to be alone with only their thoughts for long.
“That was surprising that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
So while some might think the addictive games on smartphones or the seemingly increased need to be plugged in are the result of the widespread availability of distracting hand-held devices, Wilson thinks they could just be serving the already innate desire to have something to do.
What's going on here? The researchers are still figuring that out, but they think that perhaps daydreaming or letting one's mind wander is only welcome when it's spontaneous, not forced.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson 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.”
Front page image via Shutterstock.
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