If you're crazy busy like most of us and crave some time — just a few minutes, please! — to stop and just think, be careful what you wish for. That's the upshot of a new study just published in the journal Science. The summary is written in such plain English (very unusual!) that you might as well read it for yourself:
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.
Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67% of male participants in one study "gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period," write University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval — “not including one outlier," the paper says, in an impressively straightforward way, "who administered 190 shocks to himself." (O.K., they didn't involve actual electric sockets, but it's still kind of surprising.) Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25% participation rate.
Why is just sitting and thinking so difficult and unpleasant, you probably wonder. So do the authors, in just those words. Perhaps, they say, "when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles."
Another possibility, the authors suggest, is that thinking is just too complicated. In order to do it, you have to choose a topic to think about — a trip to the beach, for example — then mentally experience the trip. Exhausting!
But no. Questioning participants after the experiments revealed that neither explanation held much water. The reason we hate sitting and thinking, despite our fond hopes to the contrary, remains a mystery.
And yet, write the authors, stating the painfully obvious: "There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies and pleasant daydreams," and they do have an answer of sorts.
Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.
Which may not be good news — but it's at least good to know.