People will take pain over being left alone with their thoughts

Given a choice of electric shocks vs. quiet contemplation, some choose shocks

THINK NOT  People generally dislike and avoid being alone with their thoughts and in a surprising number of cases prefer mild electric shocks to quiet contemplation, a new study finds.


Most people prefer to do just about anything, including give themselves electric shocks, to avoid thinking quietly for a mere 6 to 15 minutes, researchers say.

“The human mind wants to engage with the world, even, it appears, if that involves pain,” says psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Thoughts are hard to control and steering them in pleasant directions may be particularly difficult, say Wilson and his colleagues. This finding helps to explain the popularity of meditation and other techniques by which people learn to control their thoughts and find rewards in contemplation, the scientists conclude in the July 4 Science.

Mammalian minds evolved to track external dangers and opportunities, Wilson proposes. Only humans acquired an ability to focus solely on internal thoughts. After earlier proposals that introspection  often feels unpleasant  (SN: 12/4/10, p. 11), the researchers’ new study suggests that people go to surprisingly great lengths to avoid being stranded with their own thoughts.

Previous research suggests that particularly creative people generate their best ideas while letting their minds wander. But Wilson’s study suggests that “for many people, being left alone with their thoughts is a most undesirable activity,” remarks psychologist Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

In six experiments, a total of 146 college students handed over their cell phones and sat alone, thinking, for 6 to 15 minutes. Most reported afterward that it had been difficult to concentrate and their minds had wandered. About half said the experience was at least mildly unpleasant.

Another 44 students reported that they had similar reactions when asked to sit and think alone at home. About one-third admitted to cheating by, say, listening to music or reading. Fifteen students randomly assigned to read or engage in other activities during the home experiment reported enjoying their time much more than 15 peers told to think quietly.

To check that discomfort with quiet contemplation applies outside the college crowd, the researchers recruited 61 adults, ages 18 to 77, at a farmer’s market and a church. Thinking alone at home also proved unpleasant for these study participants.

In another lab study, students rated various negative and positive sensations, including a mild electric shock. Participants said that, if given $5, they would pay some or all of it to avoid another shock.

Still, when asked to spend 15 minutes in solitary thought, 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women voluntarily gave themselves at least one shock. A greater need for novel and intense experiences among men than women may have boosted their rate of self-administered shocks, Wilson says.

Students found it no easier to think alone when given a few minutes beforehand to rehearse pleasant fantasies.

Solitary thought helps people to make sense of past experiences, a vital but difficult exercise that may explain the discomfort people felt in the new study, remarks psychologist Jonathan Smallwood of the University of York, in England. Widespread use of smart phones and computers to deal with boredom may be undermining the capacity for self-reflection, he adds.

Smallwood and his colleagues have reported that people often think about the future when they’re alone and that they feel better afterward. Volunteers in the new study also felt progressively better the more they pondered the future, Smallwood says. Some participants enjoyed thinking about future contacts with family and friends, “creating virtual social contact in their heads,” Wilson suspects. But there were too few future-oriented thinkers to reverse participants’ overall tendency to dislike being alone with their thoughts.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated July 24, 2014 to correct the number of adults recruited at a market and a church.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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