According to a recent survey, we bend the truth an average of 1.65 times a day. Another report states that those of us who are morning people lie more than night people. My wife really ribbed me for that one. Maybe you saw the GEICO commercial in which the honesty of Abraham Lincoln was sorely tested. Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?” After an awkward pause, Honest Abe answers truthfully. His wife walks off in a huff. Of course, most day-to-day lies do not rise to the level of the whopper told by a postal carrier named Cathy Wrench Cashwell. According to The Atlantic magazine (September 2013), she appeared on the show The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin. So what was the problem with that? Five years earlier, she had filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that she had been injured on the job. She said that her injury left her unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job — skills which she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right. The tape of the game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures she posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise. Indicted in federal court for worker’s-compensation fraud, she pleaded guilty. Clearly, people lie. We may not tell big lies that land us in federal court. But we’re not as truthful as Honest Abe in the Geico commercial either. The ancient rabbis understood that sometimes lying is okay, if it is done for the right reason. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should chant the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride!” Their opponents, the House of Shammai, disagree. “If she is lame or blind, are you going to say of her, ‘What a beautiful and graceful bride?’ Does not the Torah command, ‘Stay far away from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7)?” They thus oppose reciting a standard formula; rather, each bride should be described “as she is” (see Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a). Hillel’s position is accepted as Jewish law. One praises the beauty of all brides and, in any case, the bride is likely to appear beautiful in the eyes of her groom. So, too, the rabbis accept the fact that Joseph’s brothers lied to him to maintain family harmony, after their father died. Lying itself is not the issue. Whether we do so to help ourselves or help others is the deciding factor. And, of course, whether or not we are objective enough to know the difference. So the next time (sometime today) you are tempted to lie, ask yourself why and see if this lie reflects your values or your weaknesses. Then you will know, most likely, what you should do.
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.”