Normally, one would find it therapeutic to be with their thoughts and have moments of solitude, but a new study found the exact opposite. The researchers, who published their findings in the July 4 issue of the journal Science, found that not only do people not like to be alone with their thoughts, but that they would rather hurt themselves than do so.
Through 11 studies, University of Virginia and Harvard psychologists concluded that participants were not a fan of being in a room alone with nothing to do. In fact, the subjects of the study were significantly more content doing activities like listening to music and playing with their smartphone. Some participants even preferred giving themselves electric shocks — albeit mild ones – rather than thinking or daydreaming.
“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,” UVa psychologist Timothy Wilson said in a statement.
In their study, Wilson and his colleagues asked some subjects to be alone with their thoughts for six minutes, 15 minutes, and anywhere in between. Some of the earlier studies included college students who reported that the “thinking period” was far from enjoyable and that they could not concentrate. After seeing the observations from college students, Wilson and his colleagues conducted a second study with more age-diverse participants from 18 to 77 years old and discovered similar findings.
“That was surprising — that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
While you may think that this need to always be doing something might be a side effect of the prevalence and availability of electronic devices like smartphones and tablets, Wilson thinks otherwise. According to the psychologist, the success of the electronic devices could be due to people’s innate desire to have something to do. His view is supported by previous studies, which have found that people are generally displeased when they have nothing to do.
In fact, during Wilson’s experiments, certain participants were asked to be in a laboratory room by themselves without anything to do for 15 minutes. Their general findings were that people could not concentrate, did not enjoy the experience, and even “cheated” in the process.
“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.”
While all the previous research and preliminary studies found that people preferred an activity over no activity, the researchers decided to expand their scope to find out if people would prefer an unpleasant activity over no activity. Their findings were surprising, as most participants preferred self-administering a mild electric shock over have nothing to do.
“What is striking,” the investigators wrote, “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 compared to the 25 percent of women who did.
The findings are very clear: People do not like having nothing to do. But Wilson and his colleagues still do not know why people are averse to being alone with their thoughts.
“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.”