Doing something is better than being alone with their thoughts for most people, research shows

July 3, 2014, University of Virginia
Credit: George Hodan/Public Domain

Most people are just not comfortable in their own heads, according to a new psychological investigation led by the University of Virginia.

The investigation found that most would rather be doing something – possibly even hurting themselves – than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts, said the researchers, whose findings will be published July 4 in the journal Science.

In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that 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.

"That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.

This animation shows how researchers determined that people really don't like being alone with their thoughts. Credit: Science, 2014.

He does not necessarily attribute this to the fast pace of modern society, or the prevalence of readily available electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people's desire to always have something to do.

In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it. Based on these surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time "relaxing or thinking."

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.

"We found that about a third admitted that they had 'cheated' at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair," Wilson said. "And they didn't enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab."

An additional experiment randomly assigned participants to spend time with their thoughts or the same amount of time doing an external activity, such as reading or listening to music, but not to communicate with others. Those who did the external activities reported that they enjoyed themselves much more than those asked to just think, that they found it easier to concentrate and that their minds wandered less.

The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, "Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?"

The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of also administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study's 15-minute "thinking" period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

"What is striking," the investigators write, "is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Wilson and his team note that men tend to seek "sensations" more than women, which may explain why 67 percent of men self-administered shocks to the 25 percent of women who did.

Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own . Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are more difficult to do on command.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," he said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities."

Explore further: Spontaneous thoughts are perceived to reveal meaningful self-insight

More information: Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind, by T.D. Wilson et al. Science, 2014. … 1126/science.1250830

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Jul 03, 2014
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5 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2014
Wow!, one of my most favourite pastimes is just sitting and thinking. I relish every opportunity to just ponder an interesting concept :)
5 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2014
Wow!, one of my most favourite pastimes is just sitting and thinking. I relish every opportunity to just ponder an interesting concept :)

True, who says that thinking is a bad thing? Not enough people think these days!
5 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2014
This is a serious problem for the future of humanity I think. I'm sure that empathic traits amplify when one is practiced in sometimes being alone.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2014
This could be a linguistic problem. How often do people say not to think when they mean not to stress? That actually confused me as a kid. People would say not to think about it in relation to sports so I didn't allow myself to focus on it at all while I did it and so would screw it up. I did not pick up the context there. Even if you do pick up the context the subtle implication that thought=stress could condition you to think about negative things any time you start thinking rather than to think about pleasant, interesting things like the nature of reality, epistemology, science, etc... All things that I LOVE to think about when I'm alone. But even so I prefer to be reading and thinking about that rather than just sitting alone without materials.

I believe this linguistic pattern reflects anti-intellectual attitudes within our society. If you mean not to stress say that don't use the word "think" when you mean "stress". When you do that you contribute to anti-intellectual attitudes.
not rated yet Jul 05, 2014
People who "always have to find something to do" , even to sit down and face their thoughts just for 15 minutes are asking for burnouts and mental health problems. The mind needs proper rest, just like the body. Proper rest does not mean having something else for the mind to work on! By avoiding getting to know their truth selves inside their heads, they are deluding themselves that's all is fine. They think the chaotic, disordered thoughts are the normal working of the mind. When the mental stresses have the occasion to overwhelm them, they would pick up a gun and wipe out total strangers or express their derangements in other ways. Having no practice at knowing, facing, controlling or acceptance of their inner selves, the results are so predictable.
not rated yet Jul 09, 2014
I am alone all day long and often don't see another person for days on end. I have no problem with that. But if I am in a place where there are a lot of people and I am isolated for a short while I feel agitated because it is unnatural.

Like in a doctor's office when the doctor must step outside for 3 minutes. It is just three minutes. I would be on my own for days without a problem but in these three minutes I am agitated and will be unable to relax.

I think that is what the experiment shows.

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