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Anything but being left alone

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How far would you go to avoid being alone with your thoughts?

People vastly prefer passive activities such as reading or listening to music over spending just a few minutes by themselves. Being alone with no distractions was so distasteful to two-thirds of men and a quarter of women they elected to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit quietly in a room with nothing but the thoughts in their heads, a study from the University of Virginia found.

While the ability to mentally detach is unique to humans, it's not often done, the researchers said. In a hyper-connected world with constant Internet access and entertainment options, U.S. government data show 83 per cent of Americans don't spend any part of their day just thinking. The series of 11 experiments detailed in the journal Science show the extent people will go to avoid the experience.

"Our intuition was that this shouldn't be so hard," said Timothy Wilson, the lead researcher and a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We kept being surprised by our own results. A few people did enjoy it, but for most, not so much."

Researchers initially asked a group of 146 college students to sit in an empty room without books, cellphones or any distractions and provided these simple instructions: Stay in your seat, stay awake and entertain yourself with your own thoughts for six to 15 minutes.

It was tougher than they expected. Most students reported that their minds wandered. Also, they were bored. A follow-up effort found similar results when students were asked to go through the same steps in a quiet room at home. They were even less likely to enjoy the experience. One-third cheated by listening to music, playing on a cellphone or moving around.

While most of the work was done with college students, the researchers recruited participants from a church and a farmers market to test the theory in older people. The results didn't stem from a generation gap. There was no evidence any group, based on age, education, income or social media usage, was more likely to appreciate time spent in reflection.

The researchers pushed even further, concluding it may take negative stimulation to get the participants to embrace having time to think. In this case, they evaluated whether volunteers would prefer an unpleasant activity -- an electric shock -- rather than no activity at all.

This time, participants were left alone in a room with access to a device to jolt them with an electric shock from a nine-volt battery. All had previously given themselves a test shock as part of the experiment so they wouldn't choose it out of curiosity. They deemed it painful and said they would pay to avoid experiencing it again.

A dozen men, or 67 per cent of the group, gave themselves at least one and as many as four shocks, as did six of 24 women. The male inclination to deliver the shock most likely stemmed from a higher sensation-seeking drive, the researchers said.

"What is striking 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 electric shock they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," they said.

 

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 D6

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