"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Study: most people dislike being alone with their thoughts

July 4, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Virginia
and World Science staff

Most peo­ple dis­like be­ing alone with their own thoughts—and many would even rath­er give them­selves elec­tric shocks than just sit qui­et­ly, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

In a se­ries of 11 stud­ies, psy­chol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Wil­son and col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Vir­gin­ia and Har­vard Uni­vers­ity found that study par­ti­ci­pants from a range of ages gen­er­ally did­n’t en­joy spend­ing even brief pe­ri­ods alone in a room with noth­ing to do but think, pon­der or day­dream. The par­ti­ci­pants, by and large, en­joyed much more do­ing ex­ter­nal ac­ti­vi­ties such as lis­ten­ing to mu­sic or us­ing a smart­phone. Some even pre­ferred to give them­selves mild shocks.

“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,” Wil­son said. The find­ings are pub­lished July 4 in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

“Even old­er peo­ple did not show any par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for be­ing alone think­ing,” Wil­son said.

He does­n’t nec­es­sarily at­trib­ute this to so­ci­ety’s fast pa­ce or the prev­a­lence of elec­tron­ic de­vices, such as smart­phones. In­stead, he thinks the de­vices might be a re­sponse to peo­ple’s de­sire to al­ways have some­thing to do. In his pa­per, Wil­son notes that broad sur­veys have shown that peo­ple gen­er­ally pre­fer not to dis­en­gage from the world. Based on the sur­veys, Amer­i­cans spent their time watch­ing tel­e­vi­sion, so­cial­iz­ing or read­ing, and ac­tu­ally spent lit­tle or no time “re­lax­ing or think­ing.”

“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.”

Dur­ing sev­er­al of Wil­son’s ex­pe­ri­ments, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to sit alone in an un­adorned room at a lab­o­r­a­to­ry with no cell phone, read­ing ma­te­ri­als or writ­ing im­ple­ments, and to spend six to 15 min­utes – de­pend­ing on the study – en­ter­tain­ing them­selves with their thoughts. Af­ter­ward, they an­swered ques­tions about how much they en­joyed the ex­perience and if they had dif­fi­culty con­cen­trat­ing, among oth­er ques­tions.

Most re­ported they found it hard to con­cen­trate and that their minds wan­dered, though noth­ing was com­pet­ing for their at­ten­tion. On av­er­age the par­ti­ci­pants said they did­n’t en­joy the ex­perience. A si­m­i­lar re­sult was found in fur­ther stud­ies when the par­ti­ci­pants were al­lowed to spend time alone with their thoughts at home.

“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.”

The re­search­ers took their stud­ies fur­ther. Be­cause most peo­ple pre­fer hav­ing some­thing to do rath­er than just think­ing, they then asked, “Would they rath­er do an un­pleas­ant ac­ti­vity than no ac­ti­vity at al­l?” The re­sults show that many would. Par­ti­ci­pants were giv­en the same cir­cum­stances as most of the pre­vi­ous stud­ies, with the added op­tion of giv­ing them­selves a mild elec­tric shock by press­ing a but­ton.

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.

Wil­son said that he and his col­leagues are still work­ing on the ex­act rea­sons why peo­ple find it hard to be alone with their own thoughts. Eve­ry­one en­joys day­dreaming or fan­ta­siz­ing at times, he said, but these kinds of think­ing may be most en­joyable when they hap­pen spon­ta­ne­ous­ly, and are harder to do on com­mand.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers

EXCLUSIVES

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Most people dislike being alone with their own thoughts—and many would even rather give themselves electric shocks than just sit quietly, according to new research. In a series of 11 studies, psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally didn’t enjoy spending even brief periods alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild shocks. “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,” Wilson said. The findings are published July 4 in the journal Science. “Even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said. He doesn’t necessarily attribute this to society’s fast pace or the prevalence of electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people’s desire to always have something to do. In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world. Based on the surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time “relaxing or thinking.” “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.” During several of Wilson’s experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes – depending on the study – entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions. Most reported they found it hard to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants said they didn’t enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts at home. “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.” The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, “Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?” The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of giving themselves a mild electric shock by pressing a button. 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. Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are harder to do on command.