Hundreds of participants were left in a room by themselves for several minutes with nothing to do but think. Rather than complete the task, many of them chose to administer electric shocks to themselves. As it turns out, most people prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative, according to a study published in Science last week.
In a series of 11 experiments, a team led by Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia asked 409 college students to be alone with their thoughts in a bare room for 6 to 15 minutes: no phones, books, pens for doodling, or distractions of any kind. Just stay awake, be quiet, and sit idly in their seats. Some were given specific prompts, like plan a food outing, while others could think about whatever.
“We went into this thinking it wouldn’t be that hard for people to entertain themselves,” Wilson tells Science. “We have this huge brain and it’s stuffed full of pleasant memories, and we have the ability to construct fantasies and stories.”
But daydreaming may not be as enjoyable when we’re forced to do it on command. Half the volunteers reported on a 9-point scale that the experience was not enjoyable. Most found it difficult to concentrate, and even more said their minds continually wandered, even when nothing was competing for their attention. A group asked to perform the same task at home found the experience even less enjoyable; a third of them reported cheating.
Those assigned an external activity, like listening to music or reading a book, liked that twice as much as “thinking time.” When the team repeated the experiment with people ages 18 to 77 recruited from a farmers’ market and a church, they got similar results. There were some general trends: People who thought about future events with friends or family fared better than those who thought about work.
In one last experiment, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to give themselves a mild electric jolt -- like a little static electricity shock -- rather than complete the entire “thinking period.” Beforehand, when given a sample, most said they’d pay $5 not to be zapped again -- but when the time came, they still pushed the button.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson says in a news release. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world.” The team is working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.
Wilson intends to pursue ways to tame this “disengaged mind.” He often imagines being a castaway on an deserted island as he’s falling asleep. “There are lots of times in our daily lives, when we have a little bit of time out, or are stuck in traffic or trying to get to sleep,” he explains to Nature. “Having this as a tool in our mental toolbox as a way to retreat or reduce stress would be a useful thing to do.”