The Shocking Truth

New research suggests that people prefer getting electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts:

[Researchers] report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there. … Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.

In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.) Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, [researcher Timothy] Wilson said, “I’m still just puzzled by that.”

Tom Stafford resists the interpretation that people simply don’t like thinking:

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.