Which would you prefer: pain or boredom?
Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published today in Science1.
“We lack a comfort in just being alone with our thoughts,” says Malia Mason, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, who was not involved in the study. “We’re constantly looking to the external world for some sort of entertainment.”
repeated the experiment, this time allowing participants to perform the exercise at home. Nearly one-third of the study subjects later admitted to cheating.
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Wilson and his colleagues began by asking undergraduate students to stash their mobile phones and other distractions, and to sit in a sparsely furnished room for up to 15 minutes. Afterwards, nearly half of the 409 participants said that they did not enjoy the experience.
when they were placed in the room to sit alone with their thoughts, 67% of male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.
Wilson thinks that the discomfort comes from a lack of mental control: that it is difficult to tell our minds to stay on one topic and keep it there for a long time. Subjects who reported a positive experience during the experiment tended to think about future events, often with loved ones. Those who did not enjoy the time for quiet reflection often thought about work.
Wilson intends to pursue ways to tame what he calls “the disengaged mind”. “There are lots of times in our daily lives, when we have a little bit of time out, or are stuck in traffic or trying to get to sleep,” says Wilson. “Having this as a tool in our mental toolbox as a way to retreat or reduce stress would be a useful thing to do.”
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