Shocking Research: Would You Prefer to Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Or Receive an Electric Shock?

I’ve spent years studying the impact of today’s distracted culture, but I wasn’t quite ready for the results of a new study by Science Magazine. Last month the magazine revealed just how difficult and unpleasant people think it is to sit alone with nothing to do but think. The magazine states: “In the study, participants were asked to rate the pleasantness of a number of stimuli, including an electric shock, and asked how much they’d pay (up to $5) to experience (or not) each stimulus. They were then asked to sit alone with their thoughts, but told that they could shock themselves if they wanted. Among those who thought the shocks were particularly unpleasant and would pay to avoid them, 67% of men and 25% of women nonetheless shocked themselves instead of sitting alone with their thoughts.

“Without such training,” the researchers reflected, “people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

I love that last line: “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”  This is where we’ve come. 65% of men and 25% of women would actually prefer receiving an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

And why not? We carry an anti-boredom machine in our pockets. It’s called a “smartphone” and anytime we’re alone, bored, or by ourselves, we just whip it out and text a friend, check email, or listen to music. We do it so often it’s just become natural. So it shouldn’t be surprising to find that many people are uncomfortable with being alone.

This week, be intentional about solitude.  Take the time to turn off the mobile device, shut down the computer, and hide the iPad. Take a few minutes to listen to YOUR ideas, not everyone else’s.  The surprise? I bet you’ll probably hear a few “God ideas” as well.

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  1. As a father of young children I am intentional about leaving my smartphone at home when I take them to the park, shops or cinema. I believe this shows my children that they have my full attention while I am with them. There’s no worse look than seeing fathers talking on their smartphones at the playground, while their kids are sitting stationary on the swings.

  2. “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” I have to ask, what kind of pain or soul disturbance happens to those untutored minds when they are forced to think?” To that end, another aspect of these percentages might be to look at how many people need mercy, forgiveness, and teaching.

  3. Also, sitting and pondering goes against “the cult of productivity.” We can use our smartphones as an excuse not to focus on what we perceive as not interesting enough, before what we are doing, has a chance to be interesting, or a great learning experience. So we jump from one non-productive thing to another and call it multi-tasking. Pretending to be productive with our phone in hand, we take a mental restroom break, texting another person who is also pretending to be productive.

  4. One last thing. Taking that time as you suggest Phil “…be intentional about solitude.” reminded me of Hebrews 4, “…entering into His rest and Philippians 4:6-20, what to think about and “…how to experience peace beyond all understanding.”

  5. In a culture which honors busyness, solitude is frowned upon and avoided at all costs. However, as you pointed out solitude and creativity have a symbiotic relationship. There’s even scientific research supporting this. I value my “solitude time” and even schedule it into my day. I highly recommend it.

  6. Provocative post, Phil. What I find so interesting is the disparity between men and women – 42% difference. Men are that much more uncomfortable with their thoughts? I wonder what accounts for this difference. It can’t just be the fault of technology. Women are just as leashed as men to our devices. I’m intrigued.

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