In the rush of everyday life, many people say they crave a moment of solitude, but a startling new study finds that people don’t really enjoy spending even 10 minutes alone with their thoughts.
In fact, we find our own musings so unsatisfying that, in research done at the University of Virginia, many people chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in quiet contemplation, researchers from that university and Harvard reported Thursday.
“I was surprised that people find themselves such bad company,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the research. “It seems that the average person doesn’t seem to be capable of generating a sufficiently interesting train of thought to prevent them from being miserable with themselves.”
The study, published in the journal Science, adds a perplexing result to the field of mind-wandering. Eleven separate experiments showed that we find our own thoughts painfully dull.
The researchers first tried giving participants in a psychology laboratory anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes alone to think. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep, and they weren’t allowed to check their cellphones. Overall, people rated this idle time as not very enjoyable — a 5 on a scale of 0 to 9.
The researchers wondered whether the artificial laboratory environment was the problem and instead gave people the same task in the comfort of their own homes. Their enjoyment was even lower at home than in the laboratory. Nearly a third of people admitted they cheated by checking their phones or listening to music.
Then, the researchers either allowed people to sit alone and think, or do an activity such as reading a book or using the Internet — although they weren’t allowed to communicate with others. The people doing activities that distracted them from their own thoughts were much happier.
Timothy Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor who led the work, was discussing the weird results in the living room of his Harvard collaborator, psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, and they began brainstorming another experiment. If people found it so unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, what lengths might they go to in order to escape themselves?
To answer this question, they started by exposing volunteers to positive and negative stimuli, including beautiful photographs and mildly painful electric shocks. They asked the people how much they would pay to avoid the shock experience if they had $5 to spend. Then, the researchers told the 55 participants to sit in a room and think for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.
“I have to tell you, with my other co-authors, there was a lot of debate: ‘Why are we going to do this? No one is going to shock themselves,’ ” Wilson said.
To their surprise, of the 42 people who said they would pay to avoid the shock, two-thirds of men chose to shock themselves, and a quarter of women did. One person pressed the button 190 times.
The researchers were stunned. People were choosing an unpleasant sensation instead of freely cogitating on whatever they wanted.
Despite a fair amount of searching, researchers did not find a single subset of people for whom ruminating on their own was clearly enjoyable.
One of the experiments recruited people ranging from 18 to 77 years old from a church and a farmer’s market. Regardless of age, education, income, gender, or smartphone or social media use, people basically found being alone with themselves not very fun and kind of boring.
That sheds new light on previous mind-wandering studies, such as one by Harvard researchers in 2010 that showed people were not happy when their attention wandered. It seemed reasonable to think that they were less happy because the distraction was inconvenient.
“We’re trying to get our tax returns done, but our minds keep drifting away to an upcoming vacation, and as a result, we spend the whole weekend reading and re-reading the stupid 1040 form,” Harvard’s Gilbert, a co-author of the new paper, wrote in an e-mail. “Well, if that’s true, then mind-wandering should be an annoyance when we’re trying to get something else done, but it should be a delight when we have nothing else to do.”
Quite the opposite, the new study suggests.
So, are we just kidding ourselves when we say we love spending time alone with our own thoughts?
Wilson wants to study the phenomenon further; he wonders whether people who regularly meditate will rate the experience differently. Schooler said the study suggests that steps could be taken to help people enjoy spending time alone.
But maybe there’s a larger message, too, about the handwringing that routinely happens about the attention-consuming devices that have become almost like an extra digital limb. Maybe the problem isn’t our smartphones; the problem is human nature. We are in a mutually enabling relationship with technology.
“I think this could be why, for many of us, external activities are so appealing, even at the level of the ubiquitous cellphone that so many of us keep consulting,” Wilson said. “The mind is so prone to want to engage with the world, it will take any opportunity to do so.”