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.

Brains in their feat

Footballers skills seem light years from our own. But, Tom Stafford argues, the jaw-dropping talents on the World Cup pitch have more in common with everyday life than you might think.

The first week of the 2014 World Cup has already given us a clutch of classic moments: Robin Van Persie’s perfect header to open the Dutch onslaught against the Spanish; Australian Tim Cahill’s breathtaking volley to equalise against Holland; and Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa defying an increasingly desperate Brazilian attack.

We can’t help but be dazzled by the skills on display. Whether it is a header lobbed over an open-mouthed goalie, or a keeper’s last-second leap to save the goal, it can seem as if the footballers have access to talents that are not just beyond description, but beyond conscious comprehension. But the players sprinting, diving and straining on Brazil’s football pitches have a lot more in common with everyday intelligence than you might think.

We often talk about astonishing athletic feats as if they are something completely different from everyday thought. When we say a footballer acts on instinct, out of habit or due to his training, we distance what they do from that we hear echoing within our own heads.

The idea of “muscle memory” encourages this – allowing us to cordon off feats of motor skill as a special kind of psychological phenomenon, something stored, like magic potion, in our muscles. But the truth, of course, is that so called muscle memories are stored in our brains, just like every other kind of memory. What is more, these examples of great skill are not so different from ordinary thought.

If you speak to world-class athletes, such as World Cup footballers, about what they do, they reveal that a lot of conscious reasoning goes into those moments of sublime skill. Here’s England’s Wayne Rooney, in 2012, describing what it feels like as a cross comes into the penalty box: “You’re asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you’ve got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you’ve obviously got to try and hit it first-time. If he’s farther back, you’ve got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it’s obviously about the execution.”

All this in half a second! Rooney is obviously thinking more, not less, during these most crucial moments.

This is not an isolated example. Dennis Bergkamp delighted Dutch fans by scoring a beautiful winning goal from a long pass in the 1998 World Cup quarter final against Argentina (and if you watch a clip on YouTube, make sure it the one with the ecstatic commentary by Jack van Gelder). In a subsequent interview Bergkamp describes in minute detail all the factors leading up to the goal, from the moment he made eye contact with the defender who was about to pass the ball, to his calculations about how to control the ball. He even lets slip that part of his brain is keeping track of the wind conditions. Just as with Rooney, this isn’t just a moment of unconscious instinct, but of instinct combined with a whirlwind of conscious reasoning. And it all comes together.

Studies of the way the brain embeds new skills, until the movements become automatic, may help make sense of this picture. We know that athletes like those performing in the World Cup train with many years of deliberate, mindful, practice . As they go through their drills, dedicated brain networks develop, allowing the movements to be deployed with less effort and more control. As well as the brain networks involved becoming more refined, the areas of the brain most active in controlling a movement change with increased skill  – as we practice, areas deeper within the brain reorganise to take on more of the work, leaving the cortex, including areas associated with planning and reasoning, free to take on new tasks.

But this doesn’t mean we think less when we’re highly skilled. On the contrary, this process called automatisation means that we think differently. Bergkamp doesn’t have to think about his foot when he wants to control a ball, so he’s free to think about the wind, or the defender, or when  exactly he wants to control the ball. For highly practiced movements we have to think less about controlling every action but what we do is still ultimately in the service of our overall targets (like scoring a goal in the case of football). In line with this, and contrary to the idea of skills as robotic-reflexes, experiments show that more flexibility develops alongside increased automaticity.

Maybe we like to think footballers are stupid because we want to feel good about ourselves, and many footballers aren’t as articulate as some of the eggheads we traditionally associate with intelligence (and aren’t trained in being articulate), but all the evidence suggests that the feats we see in the World Cup take an immense amount of thought.

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don’t have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it’s also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn’t mean that you’re mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

So footballer’s immense skills aren’t that different from many everyday things we do like walking, talking or driving a car. We’ve practiced these things so much we don’t have to think about how we’re doing them. We may even not pay much attention to what we’re doing, or have much of a memory for them (ever reached the end of a journey and realised you don’t recall a single thing about the trip?), but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t or couldn’t. In fact, because we have practiced these skills we can deploy them at the same time as other things (walking and chewing gum, talking while tying our shoe laces, etc). This doesn’t diminish their mystery, but it does align it with the central mystery of psychology – how we learn to do anything.

So while you may be unlikely to find yourself in the boots of Bergkamp and Rooney, preparing to drill one past a sprawling keeper, you can at least console yourself with the thought that you’re showing the skills of a World Cup legend every time you get behind the wheel of your car.

A bonus BBC Future column from last week. Here’s the original.

How often do men really think about sex?

Every seven seconds? Probably not. But rather than wonder about whether this is true, Tom Stafford asks how on earth you can actually prove it or not.

We’ve all been told that men think about you-know-what far too often – every seven seconds, by some accounts. Most of us have entertained this idea for long enough to be sceptical. However, rather than merely wonder about whether this is true, stop for a moment to consider how you could – or could not – prove it.

If we believe the stats, thinking about sex every seven seconds adds up to 514 times an hour. Or approximately 7,200 times during each waking day. Is that a lot? It sounds like a big number to me, I’d imagine it’s bigger than the number of thoughts I have about anything in a day. So, here’s an interesting question: how is it possible to count the number of mine, or anyone else’s thoughts (sexual or otherwise) over the course of a day?

The scientific attempt to measure thoughts is known to psychologists as “experience sampling“. It involves interrupting people as they go about their daily lives and asking them to record the thoughts they are having right at that moment, in that place.

Terri Fisher and her research team at Ohio State University did this using ‘clickers’. They gave these to 283 college students, divided into three groups, and asked them to press and record each time they thought about sex, or food, or sleep.

Using this method they found that the average man in their study had 19 thoughts about sex a day. This was more than the women in their study – who had about 10 thoughts a day. However, the men also had more thoughts about food and sleep, suggesting perhaps that men are more prone to indulgent impulses in general. Or they are more likely to decide to count any vague feeling as a thought. Or some combination of both.

The interesting thing about the study was the large variation in number of thoughts. Some people said they thought about sex only once per day, whereas the top respondent recorded 388 clicks, which is a sexual thought about every two minutes.

However, the big confounding factor with this study is “ironic processes”, more commonly known as the “white bear problem“. If you want to have cruel fun with a child tell them to put their hand in their air and only put it down when they’ve stopped thinking about a white bear. Once you start thinking about something, trying to forget it just brings it back to mind.

This is exactly the circumstances the participants in Fisher’s study found themselves in. They were given a clicker by the researchers and asked to record when they thought about sex (or food or sleep). Imagine them walking away from the psychology department, holding the clicker in their hand, trying hard not to think about sex all the time, yet also trying hard to remember to press the clicker every time they did think about it. My bet is that the poor man who clicked 388 times was as much a victim of the experimental design as he was of his impulses.

Always on my mind

Another approach, used by Wilhelm Hoffman and colleagues, involved issuing German adult volunteers with smartphones, which were set to notify them seven times a day at random intervals for a week. They were asked to record what featured in their most recent thoughts when they received the random alert, the idea being that putting the responsibility for remembering onto a device left participants’ minds more free to wander.

The results aren’t directly comparable to the Fisher study, as the most anyone could record thinking about sex was seven times a day. But what is clear is that people thought about it far less often than the seven-second myth suggests. They recorded a sexual thought in the last half hour on approximately 4% of occasions, which works out as about once per day, compared with 19 reported in the Fisher study.

The real shock from Hoffman’s study is the relative unimportance of sex in the participants’ thoughts. People said they thought more about food, sleep, personal hygiene, social contact, time off, and (until about 5pm) coffee. Watching TV, checking email and other forms of media use also won out over sex for the entire day. In fact, sex only became a predominant thought towards the end of the day (around midnight), and even then it was firmly in second place, behind sleep.

Hoffman’s method is also contaminated by a white bear effect, though, because participants knew at some point during the day they’d be asked to record what they had been thinking about. This could lead to overestimating some thoughts. Alternately, people may have felt embarrassed about admitting to having sexual thoughts throughout the day, and therefore underreported it.

So, although we can confidently dismiss the story that the average male thinks about sex every seven seconds, we can’t know with much certainty what the true frequency actually is. Probably it varies wildly between people, and within the same person depending on their circumstances, and this is further confounded by the fact that any efforts to measure the number of someone’s thoughts risks changing those thoughts.

There’s also the tricky issue that thoughts have no natural unit of measurement. Thoughts aren’t like distances we can measure in centimetres, metres and kilometres. So what constitutes a thought, anyway? How big does it need to be to count? Have you had none, one or many while reading this? Plenty of things to think about!

This is a BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

The best way to win an argument

How do you change someone’s mind if you think you are right and they are wrong? Psychology reveals the last thing to do is the tactic we usually resort to.

You are, I’m afraid to say, mistaken. The position you are taking makes no logical sense. Just listen up and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on the many, many reasons why I’m right and you are wrong. Are you feeling ready to be convinced?

Whether the subject is climate change, the Middle East or forthcoming holiday plans, this is the approach many of us adopt when we try to convince others to change their minds. It’s also an approach that, more often than not, leads to the person on the receiving end hardening their existing position. Fortunately research suggests there is a better way – one that involves more listening, and less trying to bludgeon your opponent into submission.

A little over a decade ago Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil from Yale University suggested that in many instances people believe they understand how something works when in fact their understanding is superficial at best. They called this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth“. They began by asking their study participants to rate how well they understood how things like flushing toilets, car speedometers and sewing machines worked, before asking them to explain what they understood and then answer questions on it. The effect they revealed was that, on average, people in the experiment rated their understanding as much worse after it had been put to the test.

What happens, argued the researchers, is that we mistake our familiarity with these things for the belief that we have a detailed understanding of how they work. Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the “cognitive miser” theory.

Why would we bother expending the effort to really understand things when we can get by without doing so? The interesting thing is that we manage to hide from ourselves exactly how shallow our understanding is.

It’s a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you’ll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don’t truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other “I didn’t really understand this until I had to teach it”. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: “I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something”.

Explain yourself

Research published last year on this illusion of understanding shows how the effect might be used to convince others they are wrong. The research team, led by Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, reasoned that the phenomenon might hold as much for political understanding as for things like how toilets work. Perhaps, they figured, people who have strong political opinions would be more open to other viewpoints, if asked to explain exactly how they thought the policy they were advocating would bring about the effects they claimed it would.

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.

The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

So this is something worth bearing in mind next time you’re trying to convince a friend that we should build more nuclear power stations, that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable, or that dinosaurs co-existed with humans 10,000 years ago. Just remember, however, there’s a chance you might need to be able to explain precisely why you think you are correct. Otherwise you might end up being the one who changes their mind.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

Using rational argument to change minds

I have a longer piece in the latest issue of Contributoria: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Here’s a few snips from the opening:

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice?

…the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

…I set out to get to the bottom of the evidence on how we respond to rational arguments. Does rationality lose out every time to irrational motivations? Or is there any hope to those of us who want to persuade because we have good arguments, not because we are handsome, or popular, or offer heavy clipboards.

You can read the full thing here, and while you’re over there check out the rest of the the Contributoria site – all of the articles on which are published under a CC license and commissioned by members. On which note, a massive thanks to everyone who backed my proposal and offered comments (see previous announcements). Special thanks to Josie and Dan for giving close readings to the piece before it was finished.

 

Research Digest posts, #1: A self-fulfilling fallacy?

This week I will be blogging over at the BPS Research Digest. The Digest was written for over ten years by psychology-writer extraordinaire Christian Jarrett, and I’m one of a series of guest editors during the transition period to a new permanent editor.

My first piece is now up, and here is the opening:

Lady Luck is fickle, but many of us believe we can read her mood. A new study of one year’s worth of bets made via an online betting site shows that gamblers’ attempts to predict when their luck will turn has some unexpected consequences.

Read the rest over at the digest, I’ll post about the other stories I’ve written as they go up.

What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

Last month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and now need to get backers for my proposal again.

So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update:: Backed! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time