A series of studies, published in the most recent issue of Science, had students ranking sitting in silence and thinking below almost everything else, including self-administering electric shocks.

In "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind," researchers attempted to answer the questions of "Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?" The answer to the first question, based on survey results, was "No." 83% of respondents reported that they spent no time at all thinking or relaxing.


Then, the researchers wondered if the reason we avoid it was because it was unpleasant. First, they had college students spend between 6 and 15 minutes alone in an unadorned room. They were asked to "spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts." They did not report a positive experience.

Wondering if the problem was the environment, the next study had the college participants do the same thing at home. And while this means that there was an element not controlled for (the home), there was still a significant number of people who had trouble with the assignment. 32% reported that they had "cheated" (by listening to music or something similar) and the enjoyment level didn't rise at home, either.


Then, the researchers randomly assigned some people to sit and think and others to read/listen to music/etc. Those in the latter group enjoyed the experience much more than the former.


In case the problem was the amount of work inherent in having to both come up with something to think about and then think about it, the experiments were done again with the participants given topics to think about. There was no significant change.

Finally, the researchers then tested if people would rather do something they know to be unpleasant rather than sit and think. Here's how that study was constructed:

In study 10, participants received the same instructions to entertain themselves with their thoughts in the laboratory but also had the opportunity to experience negative stimulation (an electric shock) if they so desired. In part 1 of the study, participants rated the pleasantness of several positive stimuli (e.g., attractive photographs) and negative stimuli (e.g., an electric shock). Participants also reported how much they would pay to experience or not experience each stimulus again, if they were given $5. Next, participants received our standard instructions to entertain themselves with their thoughts (in this case for 15 min). If they wanted, they learned, they could receive an electric shock again during the thinking period by pressing a button. We went to some length to explain that the primary goal was to entertain themselves with their thoughts and that the decision to receive a shock was entirely up to them.

Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation—especially men: 67% of men [...] compared to 25% of women (6 of 24; range = 0 to 9 shocks, M = 1.00, SD = 2.32). Note that these results only include participants who had reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again. The gender difference is probably due to the tendency for men to be higher in sensation-seeking. But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min 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.


While the researchers concluded that this extreme reaction has to do with preference to do something rather than nothing and the difficulty in keeping our thoughts in positive directions, Jessica Andrews-Hanna at the University of Colorado presented an alternate interpretation that rings true to us:

Imagine the setup – a person is told to sit in a chair with wires attached to their skin, and a button that will deliver a harmless but uncomfortable shock, and they are told to just sit there and entertain themselves with their thoughts. As they sit there, strapped to this machine, their mind starts to wander, and it naturally goes to that shock – was it really that bad?

What are the experimenters really interested in? Perhaps this is a case where curiosity killed the cat.


Although, we still wonder about the outlier who shocked himself 190 times.

[via The Guardian]

Top image: veritum dies aperit by monkeyc.net/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0