Do we really hate thinking so much we’d electrocute ourselves rather than do it?

By Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield

The headlines

The Guardian: Shocking but true: students prefer jolt of pain than being made to sit and think

Nature: We dislike being alone with our thoughts

Washington Post: Most men would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts


The story

Quiet contemplation is so awful that when deprived of the distractions of noise, crowds or smart phones, a bunch of students would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit and think.


What they actually did

Psychologists from the universities of Virginia and Harvard in the US carried out a series of 11 studies in which participants – including students and non-students – were left in an unadorned room for six to 15 minutes and asked to “spend time entertaining themselves with their thoughts.” Both groups, and men and women equally, were unable to enjoy this task. Most said they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered.

In one of the studies, participants were given the option to give themselves an electric shock, for no given reason or reward. Many did, including the majority of male participants, despite the fact that the vast majority of participants had previously rated the shocks as unpleasant and said they would pay to avoid them.


How plausible is this?

This is a clever, provocative piece of research. The results are almost certainly reliable; the authors, some of whom are extremely distinguished, discovered in the 11 studies the same basic effect – namely, that being asked to sit and think wasn’t enjoyable. The data from the studies is also freely available, so there’s no chance of statistical jiggery-pokery. This is a real effect. The questions, then, are over what exactly the finding means.


Tom’s take

Contrary to what some reporters have implied, this result isn’t just about students – non-students also found being made to sit and think aversive, and there were no differences in this with age. And it isn’t just about men – women generally found the experience as unpleasant. The key result is that being made to sit and think is unpleasant so let’s look at this first before thinking about the shocks.

The results fit with research on sensory deprivation from 50 years ago. Paradoxically, when there are no distractions people find it hard to concentrate. It seems that for most of us, most of the time, our minds need to receive stimulus, interact with the environment, or at least have a task to function enjoyably. Thinking is an active process which involves the world – a far cry from some ideals of “pure thought”.

What the result certainly doesn’t mean, despite the interpretation given by some people – including one author of the study – is that people don’t like thinking. Rather, it’s fair to say that people don’t like being forced to do nothing but think.

It’s possible that there is a White Bear Effect here – also known as the ironic process theory. Famously, if you’re told to think of anything except a white bear, you can’t help but think about a white bear. If you imagine the circumstances of these studies, participants were told they had to sit in their chairs and just think. No singing, no exploring, no exercises. Wouldn’t that make you spend your time (unpleasantly) ruminating on what you couldn’t do?

In this context, are the shocks really so surprising? The shocks were very mild. The participants rated them as unpleasant when they were instructed to shock themselves, but we all know that there’s a big difference between having something done to you (or being told to do something) and choosing to do it yourself.

Although many participants chose to shock themselves I wouldn’t say they were avoiding thinking – rather they were thinking about what it would be like to get another shock. One participant shocked himself 190 times. Perhaps he was exploring how he could learn to cope with the discomfort. Curiosity and exploration are all hallmarks of thinking. It is only the very limited internally directed, stimulus-free kind of thinking to which we can apply the conclusion that it isn’t particular enjoyable.


Read more

The original paper: Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.

You can see the data over at the Open Science Framework.

Daniel Wegner’s brilliant book on the White Bear problem.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

12 thoughts on “Do we really hate thinking so much we’d electrocute ourselves rather than do it?”

  1. I agree that framing the task as “spend time entertaining yourself with your thoughts” probably tilted the results. Interesting though that participants felt this created a need for concentration so that having the mind wander was “wrong” and had to be countered. “Just let your mind wander around” might have produced different results, since most people enjoy daydreaming (compared to, for instance, listening to a boring speaker or waiting in a dentist’s office.) “Think of your favorite fantasy” might’ve gotten even happier results.

    Would be interesting to see the experiment done with writers, who already spend far longer than 15 minutes alone in a room thinking, on a daily basis. (The first thing I do when stuck alone in a room waiting–without my knitting–is consider whether one of my characters could get into it or escape from it. Is that vent big enough? Is it a dropped ceiling, and if so, how strong are the supports? What can you hear from inside the room? Is any of the equipment in the room potentially useful (and why would the villain leave it there for the character to use?) Would this room be appropriate on a spaceship? In a castle? A condo, a bank building, a warehouse, a factory? What era? What would it normally be used for? What if it were painted a different color? What if the ceiling was higher/lower/vaulted? What might be on the other side of every wall?) There’s a lot more than 15 minutes of amusement in any room, when a writer is stuck waiting in it.

  2. The inability to derive joy from listening to one’s own ideas is an affliction that can be remedied by the application of medical marijuana.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful take on the experiments.

    I felt troubled by the way the conclusions were set out in the media but couldn’t work out why; I think your explanation of what was going on makes a lot more sense.

  4. No, it’s utter nonsense like most psychology studies these days (and maybe ever).
    Put into a room with something to try (eg shocking themselves mildly), many people will just try it even just for a laugh. It does not signal being uncomfortable, it signals the willingness to explore your surroundings. Would not be surprised if they did not even use a sensible control group compare against.

  5. It seems like another possibility is the novelty aspect: I don’t really like getting shocked, and I would probably like to avoid getting shocked… but it’s only happened to me twice in my life and it’s been a while. What does it feel like? This seems like a safe situation to experience something new!

    Now, if you did this over weeks so the novelty wore off, that would be something.

    1. The participants were given sample shocks to start out, so that should have greatly reduced the novelty aspect.

  6. Input seems important to activate memories that allow a train of thought to develop. A novel but boring situation is an input that might take time to quiet down enough in present focused attention to generate thinking that can unfold in a satisfying way (and even then there are limits to the self generated input unless there is something already pressing on thought from a previous input). In some ways it resembles the usual framing studies where a situation is presented to cause a pattern of thinking or behavior.

  7. This study sounds rather poorly done to me, and with so many gaps, I’m not sure what, if anything, can be taken from it.

    That said, I would love to see this carried out on people who have siblings versus people who were only children — also introverts versus extroverts. I’m somewhere between extroverted and introverted, but I was an only child, and I would honestly have no problem sitting in a room and letting my mind wander — that is thinking — for 15 minutes. I think I’d start to struggle at 30, but probably not before that. Being able to entertain yourself is a learned skill, I think.

  8. Read about this research on several sites now. Decided to have a crack at it having read your article but before reading comments.

    Given that so many people would apparently rather electrocute themselves than just sit and think/play with their minds, I was a tad daunted. I followed as exactly as possible the protocols reported.

    No less than 24 minutes went by before I looked at the clock. I found a great many things to occupy my mind with. Redesigned my house – put an extra floor in; listened to music playing in my memory which came completely unbidden; then onto another mind-state which I’m familiar with and fascinated by but won’t describe here because I’m still working out what it means/where it’s from.Could have carried on for easily an hour.

    Having done all that, I’m staggered that so many people could not feel comfortable with themselves enough to explore their thinking, their inner space. And very sad for them.

    Also intensely curious – what does it mean that I, and presumably a proportion of others somewhere in this research can comfortably spend time with themselves? What does it mean for us all that a seeming majority cannot? I can thing of some ramifications that are only too (painfully) obvious in day to day life. But given that the discomfited ones predominate, there’s a widespread, exponential impact I’d say. What can we do to help these profoundly impoverished people?

    Perhaps not incidental is that I’m a published author and have been writing for decades.

  9. It looks like people were required to sit in some unholy lit room with white walls or in front of a computer? I’d think this would skew the effect as much as having them in “too pleasant” an environment like the outdoors.

    I liked the commenter’s question about meditation. For one, beginners often have to aim for one minute or less because yes, it is that hard to clear the mind. For another, meditation is certainly not the same as “not thinking”. It’s a pretty active exercise with assignments that pose a unique challenge each time. By the time you’ve practiced it has become easier to “not think”

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