You are sitting alone in a room, a white-walled room. You are playing Candy Crush on your phone when suddenly, the unthinkable happens: your phone has died.
In a recent study published in Science, scientists at the University of Virginia found that people would rather be electrically shocked than spend time alone with their thoughts.
“In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
Are your own thoughts really that bad?
At first, researchers had participants sit alone in a lab for 6 to 15 minutes with no devices (gasp!) other than their brains and “overall, people rated this idle time as not very enjoyable — a 5 on a scale of 0 to 9.”
Participants disliked being alone in their homes with no devices even more than the lab, and many admitted they cheated.
One of the study’s researchers, pyschologist Timothy Wilson said:
“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.”
Ok, so people don’t like sitting alone doing nothing. But is doing something painful better than nothing at all? Apparently, yes.
According to The Globe:
“Researchers told the 55 participants to sit in a room and think for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.”
Apparently the negative thoughts in the participant’s heads were worse than the shock, because “of the 42 people who said they would pay to avoid the shock, two-thirds of men chose to shock themselves, and a quarter of women did. One person pressed the button 190 times,” The Globe reported.
According to LiveScience, “the scientists explained the gender difference by saying that men are more likely than women to seek ‘sensations.’”
Wilson and his team are not sure exactly why the results showed what they did, but Wilson stated that “everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are more difficult to do on command.”