Most people don’t think it’s fun to sit alone with nothing to do but think — it’s part of the reason for obsessive phone-checking during idle moments. A new study in Science highlights just how unenjoyable this experience is: in short, very. To the point that some people will choose to shock themselves rather than sit alone with nothing to do for a little while.
The researchers conducted 11 experiments in a variety of settings and among a variety of age groups. In most of them, subjects were asked to simply chill out and think for 6 to 15 minutes — no phone, no book, no nothing — and then rate the experience. The participants found it very hard to do so, with rather high percentages saying it was unenjoyable and that they found their minds wandering in a distracting way. And when one group in one experiment was offered entertainment like listening to music or surfing the web, they reported that that was much more enjoyable than being alone with their thoughts.
Maybe not too, too surprising. But one of the experiments really upped the ante in a — sorry — shocking way.
In that one, participants were asked to rate the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a number of stimuli, including an electric shock, and then asked how much of $5 they’d pay to experience or not experience each of them again. Then, they were asked to sit alone with their thoughts, but told that if they wanted to, they could shock themselves by pressing a button (because why not?).
Among the participants who said they’d pay to avoid being shocked again (meaning those who found it particularly unpleasant), 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women nonetheless shocked themselves rather than face, without distraction, what is apparently a terrifying hellscape inside their heads. The researchers suggest the gender difference could come down to men having greater sensation-seeking tendencies than women — that is, they get bored more easily.
These studies, the researchers write, can help explain why some people seek out mindfulness training — simply to make idle moments, which are inevitable, less difficult, and less likely to lead to unpleasant ruminating or self-criticism.
“Without such training,” they write, “people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” Amen.