How A Bunch Of Humans Horribly Failed A Rather Simple Task Which Asked Them To Do Nothing

Humans, especially men, prefer receiving negative, even painful stimulation, to suffering through the bouts of obligatory "mind-wandering".

Humans hate being left alone with their thoughts so much that they'd rather be in — self-inflicted — pain

Don't try this at home!

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In a study published in Science Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company.

The experiment was simple. All the participants had to do was enter an empty room, sit down, and think for six to 15 minutes. But without a cellphone, a book, or a television screen to stare at, it quickly became too much to handle.

Most people don't like being alone with their thoughts

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In fact, even when individuals were given time to "prepare" for being alone — meaning that they were able to plan what they would think about during their moments of solitude — the participants still "found it hard," Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. "People didn't like it much."

"We went into this thinking that mind wandering wouldn't be that hard," said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of the study

“People usually think of mind wandering as being a bad thing, because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. But we wanted to see what happens when mind wandering is the goal.”

He didn’t think his subjects would struggle with the task

“We have this big brain full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies. But despite that, we kept finding that people didn’t like it much and found it hard.”

The researchers tried everything they could think of to make the task of being task-less easier

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“We tried to give them time to prepare,” he said, “so they could think about what they were going to spend their time thinking about.”

But even going into the exercise with a plan — an upcoming vacation to plot, for example, or a particularly dreamy celebrity to daydream about — didn’t seem to help participants enjoy their time alone.

Those who completed the study at home often admitted to cheating by picking up their phones or a book, and many reported that the six to 15 minutes spent thinking had been unpleasant.

When it became clear that people were desperate for distractions, the researchers decided to give them one. But what they came up with wasn't exactly pleasant.

“It dawned on us: If people find this so difficult,” Wilson said, “would they prefer negative stimulations to boredom?”

They gave the participants access to a device that would provide a small electrical shock by pressing a button

It wasn’t a very strong shock, as the device was built around a 9 volt battery. “But we weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” he said. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.” So, instead of just sitting there, participants were now also allowed to shock themselves as many times as they liked using the device.

And the participants did actually shocked themselves. Most of those who decided to do so did so seven times.

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These results baffled the researchers. "I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice," Wilson, told The Washington Post in reference to his initial position during the conception of the study, published yesterday in Science.

One man (whose data was left out of the study) shocked himself — wait for it — 190 times over a period of 15 minutes

“I have no idea what was going on there,” Wilson said. His data points weren't included in the final analysis. "I’m still just puzzled by that."

Still, the fact that they chose to shock themselves at all, on their own, was unexpected. And this had nothing to do with curiosity about what the shocks would feel like.

The researchers removed the curiosity factor by giving subjects a sample shock beforehand. They even asked them how much they would pay, given a $5 allowance, to prevent another shock. Most offered up a hypothetical dollar or two. But when left alone in the room for a 15-minute thinking session, the participants exhibited some shocking behavior.

Yet, people voluntarily shocking themselves repeatedly wasn't the only surprise

According to the researchers, men showed a marked preference for the negative stimulation. Out of 24 women, only six decided to shock themselves, but 12 out of the 18 male participants figured electric shocks were worthwhile.

This, the authors wrote in the study, could be attributed to the fact that men tend to be more “sensation seeking” than women. In other words, most men are more interested in seeking variety and stimulation than women are, even if that means getting 190 electric shocks in 15 minutes.

A professor of psychology at the University of York who wasn't involved in the study said that "being able to disengage mentally is an important attribute"

A woman alone with her thoughts on a couch. The researchers have learned that people hate being left alone to think

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“It allows us to think about information that is not in the environment,” Jonathan Smallwood said. It’s hypothesized that this allows us to act in ways that aren't directly influenced by our environmental stimuli. “So that is probably the way,” he said, “that the human mind escapes from simple reflexive behavior.”

The ability to let the mind wander has been linked to greater working memory and increased creativity, he said. But the study’s findings don’t surprise him.

In a world where we have a hundred distractions—social media and smartphones, for example—the subjects probably found being alone with their thoughts to be strange, the professor said

Although Wilson’s studies were small, with a series of 11 experiments using between 40 and 100 people each, both researchers said that the field is ripe for further exploration.

However, it's possible that modern distractions aren't totally to blame. The study participants who used social media less frequently weren't exactly better daydreamers.

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“I suppose it’s kind of circular,” Wilson said. “We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions. But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.”

But for now, it would appear that humans, especially men, seem to prefer receiving negative, even painful stimulation, to suffering through the bouts of obligatory "mind-wandering" — which you could also call "boredom," depending on how you want to look at it.

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