People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts

A new study finds we're not very good at entertaining ourselves.
Tomás Fano/flickr

Considering the many challenges life has to offer, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts for a few minutes seems like one of the easier hurdles to overcome. You could recall your favorite childhood memory, plan your weekend, or try to solve a problem from work. But it turns out that people find this assignment incredibly hard. And, according to new research, they’ll even resort to giving themselves electric shocks to keep themselves entertained.

“We, like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves,” the lead researcher, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, told me. “That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”

“So we started out just kind of by the seat of our pants trying stuff to see how easy it was for people to entertain themselves with their own thoughts,” he went on. “With the expectation, to be honest, that it wouldn’t be that hard. We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts. And we just kept doing study after study finding that—for many people, anyway—not so much.”

Wilson reported some of his team’s results at a recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and also published them in today’s issue of Science.

They report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there. (In the lab studies, one participant’s data was tossed because an experimenter had accidentally left a pen behind and the subject used it to write a to-do list. Another’s was tossed because an instruction sheet had been left behind and he used it to practice origami.)

Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.

In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.) Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, Wilson said, “I’m still just puzzled by that.”

Presented by

Matthew Hutson is a science writer based in New York City. He is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.

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