Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than spend time with their own thoughts

Posted on July 7, 2014

Go people-watching in any Western country and it's rare to come across a person sat alone in quiet contemplation. Most lone individuals are seen playing with their mobile phone, reading, watching a movie on their tablet, or people-watching. Why this need for distraction? Is there something so aversive about spending time immersed in our own thoughts?

A team of psychologists led by Timothy Wilson has investigated. Across six initial studies they invited hundreds of undergrads, one at a time, to spend 6 or 15 minutes (depending on the specific study) in a sparse room "entertaining themselves with their thoughts." Afterwards most of the students said they'd found it difficult to concentrate, their mind had wandered, and they'd not enjoyed the experience all that much (the average enjoyment rating was 5 on a 9-point scale; half the sample gave a rating at, or below, the midpoint of the scale).

The most dramatic evidence for people's unwillingness to spend time with their own mind comes next. After first excluding a minority of participants who said they enjoyed the sensation of an electric shock, the researchers invited the remainder to entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes. During this time, the undergrad participants were told they could press a button to give themselves a shock (4 milliamperes for men; 2.3 milliamperes for women). All had previously stated that they'd pay money not to receive a shock of this intensity because of its unpleasantness. And yet 67 per cent of these male participants shocked themselves at least once during the contemplation period, and 25 per cent of the women. One strange fellow who zapped himself 190 times was omitted from the analysis.

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Source material from British Psychological Society