Most people are not comfortable in their own heads and would rather be doing something - possibly even hurting themselves - than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts, a new study has found.
According to a new study led by the University of Virginia, study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream.
The participants enjoyed doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone much more. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.
"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising - I certainly do - 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," said psychologist Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia.
Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this "thinking period" wasn't very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate.
So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.
During several of Wilson's experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes - depending on the study - entertaining themselves with their thoughts.
Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience.
Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, researchers wondered whether people would rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all.
In an experiment, participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of also administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.
Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study's 15-minute "thinking" period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves.
All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.
"What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," Wilson said.