A U.S. study published on Thursday showed that most volunteers who
were asked to spend no more than 15 minutes alone in a room doing
nothing but sitting and thinking found the task onerous.
In fact, some of the volunteers, men in particular, in one of the 11
experiments led by University of Virginia researchers preferred to
administer mild electrical shocks to themselves rather than sit and
"Many people find it difficult to use their own minds to entertain
themselves, at least when asked to do it on the spot," said
University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson, who led
the study appearing in the journal Science. "In this modern age,
with all the gadgets we have, people seem to fill up every moment
with some external activity."
Nearly 800 people took part in the study. Some experiments involved
only college students. The researchers then broadened the study to
include adults who live in the same area.
They went to a church and farmer's market to recruit people from a
variety of backgrounds and ages up to 77. And they got the same
results: most participants regardless of age or gender did not like
to be idle and alone with their thoughts.
In some experiments, college volunteers were asked to sit alone in a
bare laboratory room and spend six to 15 minutes doing nothing but
thinking or daydreaming. They were not allowed to have a cellphone,
music player, reading material or writing implements and were asked
to remain in their seats and stay awake. Most reported they did not
enjoy the task and found it hard to concentrate.
Researchers then had adult and college student volunteers do the
same thing in their homes, and got the same results. In addition, a
third of volunteers cheated by doing things like using a cellphone
or listening to music.
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The researchers did an experiment to see if the student volunteers
would even do an unpleasant task rather than just sit and think.
They gave them a mild shock of the intensity of static electricity.
Volunteers were asked whether, if given $5, they would spend some of
it to avoid getting shocked again. The ones who said they would be
willing to pay to avoid another shock were asked to sit alone and
think for 15 minutes but were given the option of giving themselves
that same shock by simply pushing a button.
Many did no, especially men: Two-thirds (12 of 18) administered at
least one shock. One did it 190 times. A quarter of the women (six
of 24) gave themselves at least one shock.
"I think they just wanted to shock themselves out of the boredom,"
Wilson said. "Sometimes negative stimulation is preferable to no
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool)
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