For many people, being forced to spend a few minutes alone with their thoughts is an unpleasant experience, new research suggests.
A series of studies revealed that people would rather do an activity, such as listening to music or playing with a smartphone, than sit alone in a room for several minutes. In fact, some people — especially men — would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than do nothing, the researchers found.
"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising," Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in a statement, "but our study participants 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." [Video: Would You Electric Shock Yourself Out of Loneliness?]
In the report, published online today (July 3) in the journal Science, Wilson and his colleagues investigated how people across a range of ages and backgrounds handled "alone time."
In some studies, they asked participants to sit alone in a bare room and entertain themselves with their thoughts, without fiddling around with a cellphone or doing any reading or writing for six to 15 minutes. Then, the researchers asked people how much they enjoyed the experience and how hard it was for them to concentrate.
The first studies were conducted with college students, most of whom did not enjoy the experience, the researchers said. The students said they found it hard to concentrate and that their minds wandered. By contrast, when some participants were asked to spend the same amount of time doing an activity, such as reading or listening to music (without talking to others), those people said they enjoyed themselves more and found it easier to concentrate. [10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]
The researchers did another study where the students were allowed to have alone time in their own homes, and found that the students didn't enjoy this experience any more than being in a lab. A third of the students even admitted to cheating by using their cellphones, for example.
Thinking this aversion to alone time might be unique to students, the researchers completed similar studies with volunteers, ages 18 to 77, at a church and a farmers' market. Interestingly, the researchers got the same results. The fact that even older people seemed averse to sitting and thinking "was surprising," Wilson said.
No pain, no gain
But here's where it gets really interesting. In a related study to test whether people would rather do something unpleasant than do nothing at all, the researchers gave participants the option of giving themselves mild electric shocks, by pushing a button. Previously, the participants had been given a sample of the shock, and most said they would pay to avoid experiencing it again.
Yet, a quarter of the women in the study and a whopping two-thirds of the men chose to shock themselves during their alone time, the researchers said. The scientists explained the gender difference by saying that men are more likely than women to seek "sensations."
While these findings may seem to be a symptom of modern living in today's digital age, the researchers don't think this is necessarily true. Rather, smartphones and other electronic devices may be a response to a desire for distraction that people have always had, they said.
Surveys have shown that most people prefer not to disconnect from the world, and most Americans spend their free time watching TV, socializing or reading, rather than relaxing or thinking, the researchers said.
Still, it's not clear why people have trouble spending time alone with their thoughts, the researchers said. One reason people meditate may be to gain control over their thoughts, they said. But, while everyone likes to daydream sometimes, it may be more pleasant when it's spontaneous, rather than imposed by others.
"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."