Getting there used to be part of the fun. Then interstates replaced byways, turning our roads into an endless pastiche of billboards and strip-mall truck stops. Then air travel became affordable, replacing long family drives. Today, finally, the car itself has turned into a mini electronic cocoon sheltering passengers from not just rain, snow, noise and bumps but from the real world, too. Like dental work, getting there is simply something to be endured, not experienced and enjoyed.
–Jim Louderback, Buckle up and tune out, USA Weekend, March 22-24, 2002, 6.
A just-released study shows that most people find spending time alone with their thoughts and no other activities — even if only for a few minutes — difficult to do and not much fun. Some dislike it so much that they’d rather distract themselves even with something painful.
Most people find being alone even briefly with their thoughts and with no distractions — no smartphones, no music, no reading material or anything else — unpleasant. And some would even rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone thinking for even six minutes.
Those are the findings of a series of 11 studies conducted by psychologist Timothy Wilson and some colleagues at the University of Virginia (UVA) and Harvard University. The abstract for the report, published in the July 4 issue of Science magazine, summarized the results as follows: “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.”
Participants in the study ranged in age from 18 to 77. They were told to entertain themselves alone in a room just with their thoughts, or to imagine doing one of three pleasant activities like hiking. Regardless of age, most showed no fondness for being alone and thinking. On a 9-point scale of enjoyment, their average rating was about in the middle. They “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 one phase of the study, 61 participants were allowed to spend their alone time (six to 15 minutes) with their thoughts at home, and about a third of those people admitted that they “‘cheated’ … 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.”
In another phase of the testing, participants were given the option of administering a mild shock to themselves by pressing a button. Before embarking on their time alone, they all received a sample of the shock, and most said they would pay to avoid being shocked again. Nonetheless, when placed in a room alone with their thoughts and no other distractions, 12 of the 18 males (67 percent) and six of the 24 females (25 percent) gave themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute period.
“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.”
Wilson does not attribute the findings to the pace of modern society or to the ready availability of electronic devices. Rather, he posits that the devices may be a response to the common wish to always have something to do.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson 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.”