Being alone with only one’s own thoughts was found to be more painful than experiencing physical pain, according to a recently published study in the journal Science. Participants in the study did not like sitting in a room by themselves for just six to 15 minutes and many preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting by themselves with only their thoughts. The people that participated in the study preferred doing something, and apparently anything, rather than doing nothing but think.
The study was carried out in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. The point of the study was to learn more about how people choose to engage in “inward” thought, such as thinking about the past or future, or engaging in imagination. A question that they intended to answer was whether disengaging from the external world was a pleasant experience.
In the study, college students sat in a simple, plain room for six to 15 minutes. They were not allowed to bring phones, computers or other items into the room. They were only required to remain in their seat and stay awake. Pretty much the only thing left for them to do was to think. After they finished spending in time in the room doing nothing, they were given a questionnaire and answered questions about how enjoyable their experience was. The results showed the experience was not enjoyable. In another aspect of the study, the students were asked to sit alone in a room at home. Thirty-two percent of the students cheated at this task when at home. The survey results showed that being at home did not make sitting alone in a room with nothing to do more enjoyable.
The next part of the study was to allow the students to sit with their own thoughts or chose something to do. Not surprisingly, the post-sitting survey showed they enjoyed doing things much better than sitting alone with their thoughts. This part of the study was then followed by a similar experiment with participants from the general population. The results were not different from those of the students, even for people as old as 77 years.
In the final version of the study, participants could either sit alone with their thoughts or give themselves an electric shock with a device that was available in the room. Shockingly, many chose to administer a physically painful electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. A total of 67 percent of the men gave themselves at least one shock (and one male gave himself 190 shocks) and 25 percent of the women gave themselves at least one shock. As a control, the participants were previously asked about electric shocks and they had indicated they would pay to avoid a shock. Yet when left alone with themselves and their thoughts, they chose the experience of an electric shock.
Most would likely agree that 15 minutes is not a long time. Apparently, though, 15 minutes is too long to have to contemplate one’s own thoughts. Doing nothing and being alone with one’s thoughts is more painful than physical pain. The participants in the study were not given any instructions on what to think about. They were free to let their thoughts roam to any pleasantness imaginable. Yet the painfulness of boredom won out in the end.
By Margaret Lutze