Do we really prefer shocks to thoughts?

If you found yourself left in a bland room for 15 minutes, with instructions to remain in a chair and just think, and the only alternative to just sitting and thinking was to deliver a mild electric shock to your ankle…would you shock yourself? Does the thought of being alone with your thoughts for just 15 minutes bother you enough that you’d willingly subject yourself to pain just to have some form of distraction?

Checking the headlines on both traditional and social media in July would have you believe the answer is “yes”: “People prefer electrical shock to thinking“, said many; or “Most men would rather shock themselves would be alone with their thoughts than shock themselves” said others, who had read the original study or press release closely enough to recognize that there was a gender difference; and one lone report seemed to recognize that the participants were all college students, and that we might not want to suggest that the middle-aged or elderly would share such a preference.

And as with all things media, going to the original research article paints a rather different picture than the one suggested by the headlines.

The study that gave volunteers the chance to shock themselves is just one of a family of almost a dozen studies, all investigating whether people truly enjoy being alone with their thoughts. The first six involved just over 400 undergraduate students, who were asked to spend about 12-15 minutes sitting in a chair in a nondescript room, having handed over all their personal possessions. They were left with not so much as a pen or a piece of paper, and were instructed to stay awake and not leave the chair. A seventh study had another batch of some 200 students do the same thing at their home computer through a website, at a time when they didn’t feel “rushed” and could be free of distractions. Afterwards, they were asked to rate how much they enjoyed the experience, on a scale of 1 to 9.

Across all of the studies, enjoyment of just sitting there thinking came in somewhere between 4.1 and 5.9. This is not a rousing condemnation of sitting and thinking by any means, as a 5 was defined to the volunteers as “somewhat enjoyable”. In other words, it wasn’t bad, even though it wasn’t their favorite experience in the world. It was also sometimes difficult to stick with just sitting there and thinking, as about a third of the students doing the task at their computers admitted to cheating at some point by getting up, doodling, or any other activity (and still more probably did cheat but didn’t admit it).

Only in the eight study was the enjoyment students reported compared to another activity. Fifteen college students were told to sit and think, as usual; another fifteen were asked to remain in their chairs as well, but given a variety of possible activities to pass their time: movies, puzzles, anything on their phones as long as it was solitary and didn’t involve interacting with another person. The choose-your-own activity period clocked in at the most enjoyable yet, with a 6.9 out of 9 (a full point higher than sitting and thinking got on its best day), while sitting and thinking came in even worse than usual, at 3.2.

So, sitting alone with your thoughts is at best “somewhat enjoyable”, at worse something less than enjoyable, and a far cry from the enjoyment of occupying your time with puzzles, movies, or activities. But have we really been fair to thinking?

To some extent here we’re talking about forced thinking. I am one of those who is generally inclined to enjoy just thinking, without a task to keep me occupied. But I still find sitting in a doctor’s waiting room a frustrating experience if I don’t have at least a magazine to keep me occupied. There’s the notion that you aren’t where you’d rather be, the sense that you’re supposed to be somewhere doing something else, or just waiting for this task – the doctor’s visit, or the study you’re volunteering in – to be over with. This is a very different frame of mind than my usual spontaneous just-thinking moments.

Yes, the online study was supposed to counteract some of this by letting the students do it in their dorms instead of in a classroom, but as a college professor I’m trying to imagine when my students will have 15 minutes that they are not feeling “rushed” in some fashion, and I’m not feeling it. Most students “volunteer” for a study for extra credit in class or a few extra dollars, making it still a task to be done and checked off a list.

Then there’s the enforced “sitting in a chair” aspect of the just-thinking scenarios. I do very little of my thinking just sitting still. I like to think while I move. In high school I paced back and forth across my bedroom floor so much my sister, on the computer downstairs, named me Thunder Demon. It’s hard for me to get into my thoughts while sitting still, and particularly hard to be comfortable in a desk chair. The field of embodied cognition, in fact, suggests that our movements are integral to our thinking process. Given this area of research, I find it easy to imagine that sitting and thinking is not thinking’s natural habitat, and the constraints will make it less enjoyable.

Even with the comparison to alternative activities, it’s hard to be sure if it’s the distraction that leads to enjoyment, or the freedom to choose. The ability to choose how time is spent might go a long way to making that time seem enjoyable. After all, sometimes I enjoy watching movies, but if I am required to sometime when I am not in the mood, they lose some of their appeal. Force me to spend 15 minutes thinking when I’m not in the mood for it, and I will enjoy it less than if I spontaneously decided that this would be a good time to rest in my glider and see where my thoughts led me.

Which leads us, finally, to the study with the electrical shocks. Forty-two undergraduate students start out rating a selection of positive and negative stimuli, such as a picture of a cockroach, a static-electricity strength shock to the ankle, or guitar music. They were asked to imagine they were given $5, and how much they would pay to avoid experiencing any of the negative events again. (All 42 were willing to pay something, because a further 13 who were not willing to give up any of their $5 to avoid the shock were excluded from the study). Then they were left alone with their thoughts, with the same instructions to remain in the chair and just think, but with the option of pushing a button and experiencing the shock again.

In the end, two-thirds of the male college student volunteers shocked themselves at some point in the study (1.5 times on average, with no one opting for more than 4 shocks in 15 minutes), while a quarter of the female college student volunteers gave themselves at least one shock (1 shock on average, despite at least one woman going as high as 9 shocks in 15 minutes). It should be noted here that the shock was weaker for women (2.3 milli Amperes instead of 4.0), because this was needed to make sure that men and women rated the shock as equally painful. The people who shocked themselves rated the overall experience of the 15 minutes just as enjoyable as the people who didn’t shock themselves (the groups were both right around a 4.5 rating out of 9).

So, we know that about 67% of male college students, forced to sit still in a chair with nothing to do but think for 15 minutes, will choose to shock themselves a few times, and about 25% of female college students will do the same. But what does that actually tell us? Here we have late adolescents who are still developing their impulse-controlling prefrontal cortex, who are so given to impulsive behaviors that we forbid them from drinking alcohol and try to protect them from falling into impulse-buying credit card traps. Think about the 18-21 year olds you know, and perhaps this finding will seem less and less surprising.

If nothing else, over the course of 15 minutes just sitting there I might have started to wonder if the shock was really as bad as I thought it was, and shocked myself once just to check.

Across almost a dozen studies, only one went beyond college students to see if older adults – with brains more mature, or having grown up in a world without the constant stimulation of a smart phone in the pocket – would react the same way to boredom. Volunteers were recruited from a farmer’s market and a church, and about half of those who initially expressed interest followed through with the online experiment. On average they were 50 years old, and they seemed to find the 15 minutes of thinking at least partly enjoyable (5.8 out of 9), although the study authors imply that’s just because they were more likely to “cheat” by doing something else during their allocated thinking time.

What I take most from that particular study, though, is what I suspect I would see all along: That whether you are inclined to prefer shocks to your own thoughts depends on who you are. Among other things, being mindful or a meditator helped make those 15 minutes in your own mind more enjoyable. People who scored higher on a mindfulness scale, who had meditation experience, or who engaged in meditation during those 15 minutes were more likely to report enjoying the experience. Other personality traits, such as how openness and conscientiousness, also predicted more enjoyment.

In other words, despite the headlines, there are no hard and fast truths about what people do and do not like about their own minds. We might be able to make some generalizations about male and female college students, but that doesn’t necessarily predict what men or women of different ages will do. Our relationship with our thoughts must be a lot more personal and individual.
Wilson, T., Reinhard, D., Westgate, E., Gilbert, D., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind Science, 345 (6192), 75-77 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830


One thought on “Do we really prefer shocks to thoughts?

  1. As always, interesting and deep thoughts on research, Kate.

    I was thinking that people who administered shocks to themselves could have been thinking that “maybe this time something else will happen?”, “maybe they want to check how tough I am?” or something similar.

    You pointed out to a “feature” of many research papers, namely, people are usually threw into one single bag to be averaged. It seems that it would be even more valuable to find differences between groups (within experimental groups).

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