People–and men in particular–would rather receive electric shocks than sit in a room, alone, without any activity for 15 minutes. According to new research published in the journal Science, sitting alone without nothing but the thoughts in the heads was so unpleasant for some individuals, they would rather give themselves intermittent electric shocks to pass the time.
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“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 study author, Timothy Wilson, in a statement.
Wilson added that out of the 11 studies he and colleagues conducted on alone time, the results all indicated the majority of people preferred an external activity to doing absolutely nothing, even if the environment was designed to be peaceful and comfortable. The preference was the same regardless of an individual’s age, and while study participants indicated even if they enjoyed the alone time, it was more difficult to concentrate with no music, phone, book, or similar quiet activity.
In fact, without any activity to pass the time, most people said it was not enjoyable.
“That was surprising that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” said Wilson. “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. And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”
Not surprisingly, the experience of alone time was only enjoyable when people were given a quiet activity, but this also encouraged researchers to ask the question: “Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?”
The answer was yes; many people would rather do something unpleasant, like self-administer electric shocks. The majority of these individuals, however, were men, and researchers explained this was likely because men tend to seek “sensations” to pass the time whereas women are content with activities like reading.
“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.”
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” added 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.”