Most of us would confess at one point or another to finding our own company a tad boring, but a new study suggests that sitting and thinking is so much of a challenge that we’re willing to give ourselves electric shocks just to keep things lively.
The report from psychologists at the universities of Virginia and Harvard found that when test subjects were left to sit by themselves for fifteen minutes with no ‘distractions’ apart from a machine to deliver light electric shocks a massive two thirds of men and a quarter of women chose the electricity over unadulterated solitude.
The difference between men and women was atributed to the fact that men tend to be more "sensation seeking" than women, but all participants knew what the shock felt like with one outlier (who was excluded from the final results) apparently enjoying it so much that he shocked himself 190 times in 15 minutes.
"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, who reported his team’s results in the journal Science.
The study progressed through a serious of escalating experiments before reaching the shock-option. Participants were given vague directions that they would be left alone for a period of between six and 15 minutes, and asked to not entertain themselves in any way. One study had to be abandoned after an experimenter left behind a pen and the subject started drafting a to-do list; another was scrapped after an instruction sheet was forgotten and the subject took the opportunity to practice their origami.
Of the participants in the first trials, 58 per cent said they found it “somewhat” difficult or more, with 42 per cent rating their enjoyment below the “somewhat” midpoint. In experiments in which the subjects had to police themselves at home, 32 per cent reported cheating by grabbing their phones or listening to music. Those who did succumb to distractions said they found the tests much more enjoyable than those who did not – a finding the led the team to see how far people would go to avoid doing nothing.
"What is striking," the investigators concluded, "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."
However, other scientists have objected to the study's conclusions, pointing out that the participants didn't necessarily 'prefer' electric shocks to sitting alone, but they might simply have been curious to see how bad the shock had been in the first place - a curious nature that was inadvertently selected for as soon as the scientists even asked them to participate. Subjects who did chose to shock themselves did so on average 1.47 times, suggesting that once or twice was to remind them that a 9 volts battery (the source of the electricity) packs a not insignificant but not terrible blow.
Wilson said that he began the experiments after considering the fast-paced nature of modern society and the constant distractions on offer from smartphones and the internet. However, he concluded that there was no link between participants' experience of technology and their boredom at doing nothing. The researcher recruited participants aged from 18 to 77 to conduct the study, finding their marks in both a church and a famers' markert. “That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," said Wilson.
Instead, the researchers concluded that it is most likely simply the nature of our brain to want to stay active. This ‘scanner hypothesis’ suggests that mammals have evolved to constantly examine their environments for both threats and opportunities – and so to sit and examine only ourselves for minutes at time is unnatural. No wonder even Auguste Rodin's The Thinker (above) looks strained.
"The mind is designed to engage with the world," said Wilson. "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."