Self-Administered Shocks to Avoid Thinking
If you've studied psychology, you know that B.F. Skinner trained rats by giving them a choice between a positive stimulus, like a treat, and something negative, usually an electric shock. No sane rat would elect to be shocked, given a choice, unless doing so would avoid an even more unpleasant experience. Researchers found that the same principle applies to people. We opt for the M&Ms; we avoid the zap. But in a recent human study, a majority of the male subjects, and a good number of the women, opted to shock themselves-and the thing that drove them to elect the jolt was that the alternative was being alone with their thoughts.1
It's pretty obvious that as a species, we love to be distracted. Witness our collective addiction to social media, cell phones, and TV. Still, the scientists were startled to discover that so many subjects found sitting quietly, with time to think, insufferable. The study, published in the journal Science, involved 800 people, and it was the 11th in a series of related studies. In earlier research, the participants sat in a lab for anywhere from six to 15 minutes with nothing to do other than think. They couldn't check their cellphones, and they weren't supposed to nap. At the conclusion, the subjects rated their experience on a scale of one to 10, with the average response being a five. That's not a particularly high score, you probably wouldn't choose to dine in a restaurant with a five rating, but it's difficult to know how to interpret those results given that we don't know what the subjects based their scores on. Was it too cold in the room? Too hot? Were there annoying noises? Or did they simply not enjoy having nothing to do?
To find out, the researchers repeated the experiment, this time telling subjects to repeat the experience at home, where they could control the environment and ensure that it was pleasant enough. At home, though, participants enjoyed the experience even less. One-third confessed to checking their cell phones or listening to music during the allotted time. The subjects even found the task markedly unpleasant when instructed to figure out in advance what they would think about during the session.
Surprised at how disagreeable the participants found the alone time, the researchers upped the ante. They exposed 55 of the subjects to mild shocks, and then asked if they'd be willing to pay to avoid further shocks. The overwhelming majority did say they'd pay. Those participants were then asked to go into a quiet room with no distractions except the shock box. They were told they would be there for 15 minutes. They could think about whatever they wanted to, or they could shock themselves if they preferred.
Study director Dr. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia says, "I have to tell you, with my other co-authors, there was a lot of debate. We weren't even sure it was worth doing... I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice."
Au contraire. It turned out that 67 percent of the men elected to shock themselves during the 15-minute stretch. Not only that: the average guy shocked himself seven times. One subject actually gave himself 190 shocks-about 13 shocks a minute. Women were a little more able to sit with their own thoughts (or perhaps just more reluctant to experience physical pain). Only 25 percent of the women administered the shocks, but still, the fact that one in four did choose the zap is startling enough. The researchers believe that women shocked themselves less than the men because women need less variety and stimulation than men do
In any case, as the researchers wrote, the evidence indicates that "…most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative."2
In fact, not a single subject involved in any of the 11 studies seemed to enjoy having open time to think. Although the subjects ranged in age from 18 to 77, and although they came from a wide array of educational backgrounds, income levels, and even varied widely in their use of cell phones and social media, the subjects almost uniformly found being alone with their thoughts too boring to bear.
Earlier studies found that people were much less happy when their minds wandered than when they were focused on what they were doing.3 The researchers took this to mean that mind-wandering is painful because it prevents us from staying on course, being in the moment, and getting things done, but perhaps those researchers might have reached the wrong conclusion. Maybe people simply find the activity of musing painful in itself.
The results are surprising because so many of us claim that we're desperate for time to chill. We believe we want to lounge unfettered, to be alone with our thoughts. In reality, though, we fill up every minute with activity, whether that activity involves working, cruising the internet, watching television, reading, complaining, fighting, or eating. We remain oblivious to the fact that we're staying so busy because the time to contemplate that we long for might not really be what we want or, even, what we can tolerate.
If musing really is as painful as the study seems to indicate, it's no wonder we're so addicted to our electronics and to television. Anything that numbs and consumes the mind helps us to avoid the pain of thought.
One would think that people who meditate would find the experience of quiet, contemplative time pleasant enough, and the researchers do intend to study meditators next. It is interesting, though, that meditation actually is antithetical to thought. Meditators are instructed to empty their minds in order to experience bliss. However, it should be noted that mediators usually train for years learning to focus their minds on something, whether it be their breathing or a Zen koan or a candle, before they jump into nothingness. Perhaps future studies will indicate just where the mind tends to travel when left to its own devices that humans find so very unappealing. If you're inclined to envision an Orwellian future, you might imagine that the pharmaceutical companies will take that knowledge to invent some pill or bot that we can ingest to steer thought away from contemplating the big, scary issues that we apparently are so desperate to avoid. Or, they could just start marketing mini self-shock machines. In the meantime, it's worth noting that prisons use solitary confinement as the ultimate punishment.
- 1. Johnson, Caroline Y. "People prefer electric shocks to time alone with thoughts." 03 July 2014. The Boston Globe. 10 July 2014. http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/science/2014/07/03/idle/J2LpEcTdZzLykRCTnZ80fL/story.html
- 2. Lemonick, Michael , D. "You Would Rather Endure Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Study Finds." 3 July 2014. Time. 10 July 2014. http://time.com/2950919/alone-with-thoughts/
- 3. Killingsworth, Matthew A. and Gilbert, Daniel T. "A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind." 12 November 2010. Science. 10 July 2014. http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20%26%20GILBERT%20%282010%29.pdf