Researchers claim we hate being alone with our thoughts. Lots of ink but is it true?

Among the more irresistibly weird claims in last week’s issue of Science was an item stating that people would rather endure electric shocks than be alone with their own thoughts. Such a result could mean people hate being alone doing nothing or that they don’t really mind shocks. The researchers went with the former.

It turns out the claim in the press release comes from a mishmash of different studies done by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson in collaboration with Harvard’s happiness expert Daniel Gilbert.

One of the experiments involved asking participants to sit quietly and do nothing for between 6 and 15 minutes and then rate the pleasure level of the experience on a scale of 0 to 9. Leave it to psychologists to get excited about the fact that people rated the experience a 5.

Perhaps it was due to the short holiday week that so many people just went with a rehash of the press release, though it offered little information about the experiments or how the researchers drew their conclusion. A couple of outlets did run more complete stories.

In People prefer electric shocks to time alone with thoughts, Carolyn Y Johnson at the Boston Globe explained how the researchers went from a that study showing people rated doing nothing a 5 to the more “shocking” results:

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.

A couple of questions the researchers should have answered. First of all, does shocking yourself hurt? Or is it like plucking your eyebrows? Eyebrow plucking is painless if self-inflicted but can make you cry when done by someone else. And was it really discomfort with the task of doing nothing that drove people to play around with the shocks, or some other kind of impulse?

In Most men would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts, The Washington Post’s version by Rachel Feltman focused on the sex difference in the result, though for some reason the researchers didn’t focus on it.

The New York Daily News went with nearly the same angle, in a story be Meredith Engel headlined, Men would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit with their own thoughts.

NPR took a different tack with Surrounded By Digital Distractions, We Can’t Even Stop To Think by Gregory Barber. But there was nothing in the study to suggest that our gadgets had much to do with it.

The Huffington Post ran a piece headlined, People Hate Being Bored So Much, They’ll Do Almost Anything To Avoid It (Even Hurt Themselves) by Macrina Cooper-White. Here’s the lede:

It’s vacation season. What could be better than sipping an ice-cold margarita and being alone with your own thoughts?

Cute, but if the day had been warm and researchers had given the participants an icy margarita to sip for 6 to 15 minutes, they surely would have obtained a very different result.

There’s something troubling about the scientists’ interpretation, which reporters took face value in repeating that people hate being alone with their own thoughts. When asked to rate the experience, people gave it a 5, on a scale from 0 to 9. It would be surprising if they rated it any higher. That result could hardly be more obvious.

Could it be that the self-inflicted shocks weren’t really that bad? Or could it be that people inflicted the shocks out of some impulse that wasn’t a direct consequence of discomfort with their own thoughts?

In the Huffington Post story, as in a few others, the researchers added some speculative statements about the evolutionary or technological roots of people’s alleged aversion to boredom:

“We may seek out technology because entertaining ourselves with only our thoughts is difficult and technology is an easily available alternative,” Reinhard said in the email. “But, because we so often seek out external stimulation from technology we may then lose practice with entertaining ourselves with our thoughts and that in turn makes it more difficult and less enjoyable.”

Not too surprisingly, the psychologists assumed there could be nothing wrong with their interpretation of the results. It must be that there’s something wrong with people – something that psychologist should set to work fixing. – Faye Flam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *