July 4, 2014
Most People Would Rather Do Anything At All Than Sit In Silence
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe online
What good is sitting alone in your room? If a new psychological study by researchers from the University of Virginia (UVa) and Harvard University is to be believed, it's not good at all. Well, at the very least, it certainly isn't enjoyable.
Interestingly, the team found participants much preferred the presence of a distraction, even going so far as to opt for hurting themselves rather than to sit quietly alone with only their thoughts. The findings of this study will be published today in the journal Science.
Over 11 associated studies, Uva psychologist and lead author on the study, Timothy Wilson along with fellow Harvard and Uva colleagues tested subjects across a very broad age range and in multiple environments. Across almost every variable it was determined that people don't like to simply ponder, think or daydream. Instead, participants preferred doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Still others opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit in silence for a short time.
"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.
In the studies, participants were asked to sit and do nothing for periods of time ranging from six to 15 minutes. The early studies utilized college age students who reported the experience as being highly unenjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. It was then the team cast a wider net and conducted next studies with participants ranging in age from 18 to 77. The results of both groupings provided essentially the same findings.
"That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.
Many reading this might think this avoidance of undisturbed alone time might be a symptom of our tech-gadget friendly and attention-span sapped modern society. However, Wilson believes the ready use of smartphones might actually be a response to what he believes is an innate desire by many to always have something to do.
Wilson's assertion is backed up by previous broad surveys that have shown people really prefer not to disengage from the world. This could likely be attributable to the extended amounts of time people expend watching television, socializing or reading. In those previous surveys, very few people allocated any time to simply relaxing or thinking.
It might seem like a no-brainer that someone sitting in a room in a laboratory might feel self-conscious during a period meant to be dedicated to silent mindfulness. However, the results were repeated even when participants were instructed to sit and think in their own homes.
"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 team also conducted another experiment where participants were randomly assigned the task of sitting only with their thoughts or spending the same amount of time doing something, though making sure they were not communicating with anyone during the assigned time. The group that was allowed to read or listen to music reported a higher satisfaction with the time than their thinking counterparts and even reported they had a far easier time maintaining concentration.
Building even further on their study, the team next posited whether participants would rather sit with their thoughts in silence or engage in an activity far less pleasant than listening to music or reading a magazine.
Given the option of administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pushing a button or allowing themselves to sit and think for a short period, many participants opted for the electric shock.
The breakdown in gender for this portion of the study was interesting. According to the researchers, 12 of the 18 men in the study chose to give themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute “thinking” period. Of the 24 female participants, six opted for the shock. Prior to the study beginning, each participant had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.
"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."
As an explanation for why two-thirds of male participants, compared to one-fourth of female participants, chose to self-administer a shock, Wilson and his team explained that men tend to seek “sensations” more than women.
The team next intends to explore the exact reasoning why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. As Wilson explains, everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times but that enjoyment is most likely a result of it having occurred spontaneously.
"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."