July 03, 2014
Most Prefer Electric Shocks To Solitary Thinking

I shock therefore I am.

In fact, our own minds are so intolerable that many people chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in quiet contemplation, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard discovered.

Here is the Science research paper.

The researchers were shocked by their results.

In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that 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, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. 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,” Wilson said.

The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. 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.

Some people need external stimulus. Would you rather sit in a room for 15 minutes thinking or give yourself an electric shock?

People do not enjoy being alone with nothing to do.

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. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.

Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.

The experimenters then went on to add the electric shock option and most subjects pushed the button. ADHD much?

I'd like to see the experiment repeated in combination with IQ tests and some tests that measure the ability of people to concentrate. Do people with short attention spans have a greater likelihood to shock themselves? I bet multiple genetic variants contribute to the willingness to shock oneself when isolated. We need to separate out variants having to do with fear and pain thresholds from variants related to attention span and restlessness. People with really calm dispositions and low need for stimulus can probably sit in a room by themselves much more easily.

These findings probably have implications for industrial uses of psychology (the field known as industrial and organizational psychology). People who can stand to sit in a room thinking can probably handle some tasks that require calmly waiting for something that will then require they spur into action. Snipers come to mind. Are the people who feel compelled to shock themselves poorly suited to become snipers?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 July 03 02:52 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at July 3, 2014 5:53 PM:

It is not the healthy thinking but the disturbance caused by compulsive thinking that is the problem. When in isolation, individuals often find themselves in that negative state, but isolation can also be a good environment to develop proper concentration, which corrects the problem.

People who concentrate well, would not be disturbed when observing their own minds. It turns out that not all forms of thinking are uncomfortable. It's the ego part of the brain that often feels uncomfortable when facing its weaknesses. But there are other components of thinking that can be focused on the present moment to dissolve the ego.

Here is a very good book about concentration applied to the mind, the ability to be content in the present time without worrying about ego based issues of the future and past.

"Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle:


Eckhart Tolle was a PhD candidate at Cambridge where he was studying philosophy and literature, but one day he was so devastated by negative thoughts that instead of committing suicide, at that precise moment he found himself and he realized that he is not his ego, and that nothing bothered him anymore. You will see that he is a true winner instead of being a loser for having dropped out of graduate school, and it is not the money that he made by selling his book that makes him a winner, instead, his method of concentration made him a winner who truly at peace.

By the way, he does not recommend dropping out of graduate school or giving up careers: on the contrary, he says that everyone can enjoy any subject or profession by using the method of being grounded in the present moment, from which one can plan the future and study the past without getting lost.

YouTube has the entire audio book version of Eckhart Tolle's "Power of Now" (This is his voice, 7 hours and 35 minutes):


Wolf-Dog said at July 3, 2014 6:10 PM:

This audio book version of "Power of Now" has a different format, it contains questions and answers in addition to chapters. You might consider buying the original printed version.

destructure said at July 4, 2014 3:18 AM:

Proof that people would rather beat their heads against a wall than sit down and think. Bunch of shallow f*cks. It doesn't surprise me, though. Prisoners placed in solitary confinement develop mental illness including self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts. I recently watched "Castaway" about all the agony he went through being stranded on an island. I was thinking, "Hmmmm... I wonder where I can get that vacation package?" It looked like paradise. Personally, I'd rather give myself painful electric shocks than have to go to a bar, nightclub, concert or other crowded venue. Now those are intolerable.

Tom Bri said at July 5, 2014 1:39 PM:

Have often thought that listening to music is a method used to avoid thinking. Talk radio the same. I find if I drive with the radio off, I spend the time thinking, whereas if the radio is on, the trip is usually wasted.

James Bowery said at July 5, 2014 9:26 PM:

Obviously they need to become hippies.

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