When choosing between being left alone with their own thoughts or administering electric shocks to themselves, people prefer electric shocks. In a study titled “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” researchers published the following abstract in Science in July of 2014:
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats used to say, “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.” But how far into those dark corners can a person get in 6 to 15 minutes? Is the battlefield of the mind worse than electric shocks?
Apparently. Even among participants who (after being given a chance to try the device and feel how painful it was) said they would pay money not to experience the charge again, one-quarter of the women and one-third of the men still zapped themselves when they were left alone with nothing else to do. (One person even pressed the button 190 times during the course of 15 minutes.)
What’s going on? Does it have something to do with society’s addition to technology? Apparently not. The study’s results were unrelated to age or the use of smart phones or social media.
These same researchers hope to test various hypotheses in the future to explore why people were so uncomfortable when left alone with their thoughts, and they also hope to learn whether practice makes it easier. Their findings showed a slight correlation between those with a meditation practice and those who could sit contentedly for the duration of the exercise. So place your bets: In the next study, will meditators be able to sit happily for 6 to 15 minutes, or will they apply electric shock to amuse themselves?