Researchers have found that men would rather be in pain than just sit alone with their thoughts. A new study published in Science indicates that about one-quarter of women and two-thirds of men would rather shock themselves than letting their minds wander.
“We went into this thinking that mind wandering wouldn’t be that hard,” said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “People usually think of mind wandering as being a bad thing, because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. But we wanted to see what happens when mind wandering is the goal.”
The researchers originally just had people try to sit and think for six to 15 minutes. It sounds easy, but according to the results, people had a lot of trouble with such as simple task. Many of the people who participated in the study from home reported that they cheated by picking up their phones or checking emails. So, the research team came up with another idea.
“It dawned on us: If people find this so difficult,” Wilson said, “would they prefer negative stimulations to boredom?” He gave them access to a device that would provide a small electrical shock by pressing a button. It wasn’t a very strong shock, as the device was built around a 9 volt battery. “But we weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” he said. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.”
However, it seems that people would shock themselves by choice. The researchers first gave the subjects a sample shock beforehand, and then asked them how much they would be willing to pay to prevent another shock if they were give a $5 allowance. Most people said a dollar or two, indicating that they did not enjoy the shocks very much.
But, when they were left alone for 15 minutes in a thinking room, many of the participants shocked themselves. One man even shocked himself 190 times.
“I have no idea what was going on there,” Wilson said. “But for most people, it was more like seven times.”
Six out of the 25 women shocked themselves, while 12 out of 18 of the men decided to give themselves a shock. The authors of the study seem to think that this is because men enjoy stimulation more than women do.
Overall, the study shows that people crave some type of distraction, even if that means hurting themselves.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson 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.”