I Think, Therefore I Shock!

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Being left alone with ones thoughts should be something people enjoy. But a new study has found that people really don’t enjoy the experience at all. When people are left to their own devices without any distractions such as music, smartphones and pens their minds wander more making it hard to concentrate. This occurs frequently with people either sitting in traffic or daydreaming at work for example but research has shown that people don’t like it as much. Society likes to be engaged with their world and being left alone with only their thoughts can be boring and unsatisfactory. It can be so boring to them that people are more likely to hurt themselves for entertainment than sit alone with their thoughts.

Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, conducted a study that involved hundreds of people. Individuals were placed in sparsely furnished rooms without any belongings such as cellphones and pens and told to think. These “thinking periods” lasted from six to fifteen minutes where in the first test they were told to think about anything and in the second to choose from several prompts such as what to eat later or about playing sport. After the tests they were asked to rate the experience on a nine-point scale. From that the study was able to find that about 50% of participants did not enjoy the experience. Boredom was given very high ratings.

“We went into this thinking it wouldn’t be that hard for people to entertain themselves,” Wilson says. “We have this huge brain and it’s stuffed full of pleasant memories, and we have the ability to construct fantasies and stories. We really thought this [thinking time] was something people would like.”

The experiment then decided that a change of scenery might change peoples’ perspective on sitting alone and thinking. They allowed participants to conduct the same experiment from home, yet results were similar. Most participants cheated during these tests by actually engaging in other activities like listening to music and reading. Subjects were happier when they did external activities about twice as much as just sitting and thinking. This mixture of boredom and the troubled efforts to control our thoughts might be the reason why people need to always be engaged in their world because if there is nothing to focus on they don’t know what to do.

Research then took the experiment to another level. Participants were left alone in a lab room and were told they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. What the experiment found was startling. Even though all the participants stated before that they would pay money to avoid being shocked around 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict pain on themselves instead of just sit alone and think. Men prefer to seek out “sensations” to women, which may explain the results.

“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 study also found that some people enjoy thinking alone more than others. People who were more agreeable or cooperative to the study were likely to enjoy themselves more when they were told to think of anything whilst those that admitted that their daydreams leave them happy also fared better. The exact reasons as to why people don’t like to think alone is still vague but maybe it is down to the spontaneity of it that makes it enjoyable than doing it on command.

Researchers suggest meditation or other techniques to relax and learn how to gain control of the mind. This will help people to steer their thoughts in more pleasant directions and enjoy it, which will stop people from hating to be alone with themselves and their thoughts.