I found an interesting article out of the Guardian this week. Psychologists at Virginia and Harvard universities reported on the results of several recent studies that were geared toward testing people on their ability to occupy themselves with no distractions. Early results showed clearly that it ain’t easy for everyone. They tried this with college students first.
The first run of experiments began with students being ushered – alone, without phones, books or anything to write with – into an unadorned room and told to think. The only rules were they had to stay seated and not fall asleep. They were informed – specifically, or vaguely – that they would have six to 15 minutes alone.
When questioned after, on average (no number given for number of students tested) they found it unfun and difficult to concentrate on anything in particular.
Unsure if their results were the result of people put in unfamiliar settings, they reran the tests with people at home instead and found that many participants still rated the experience as “miserable” and some resorted to cheating.
To see if the effect was found only in students, the scientists recruited more than 100 people, aged 18-77, from a church and a farmers’ market. They too disliked being left to their thoughts.
So, the researchers tried something else. Time alone with no distractions save one “shocker” — an actual low-intensity shock they could give themselves. It’s not clear if they only tested students this way or the general public as well. In terms of the students:
They had been asked earlier to rate how unpleasant the shocks were, alongside other options, such as looking at pictures of cockroaches or hearing the sound of a knife rubbing against a bottle.
All the students picked for the test said they would pay to avoid mild electric shocks after receiving a demonstration.
To the researchers’ surprise, 12 of 18 men gave themselves up to four electric shocks, as did six of 24 women.
And some that first claimed they’d avoid the shock if given the choice chose the shock anyway once left on their own.
They include a link to Science Magazine and their larger write-up about this. Check it out if you’re a subscriber or check if your local library has this issue available: Science 4 July 2014:Vol. 345 no. 6192 pp. 75-77.
Jessica Andrews-Hanna at the University of Colorado said many students would probably zap themselves to cheer up a tedious lecture. But she says more needs to be known about the motivation of the shockers in Wilson’s study.
Which brings me to my thoughts on this.
I don’t think I’d have to resort to shocking myself if left in an empty room for fifteen minutes and, based on data provided in the article, many of the participants didn’t either. But those who did, what was their motivation? Did curiosity drive them to zap themselves, or were they so incapable of being alone with their thoughts that minor jolts of pain were preferable to feeling or doing nothing? And those who reported being unhappy or miserable but didn’t relieve the monotony with electrocution — why were they unhappy and miserable?
A back in time story since I can’t think of a current anecdote:
One summer during university I’d let peer pressure lure me into joining the Naval Reserves (a longer story I’m not sharing right now) and did a few weeks of basic training in Nova Scotia but I kept getting hurt. On one injured occasion my group was busy with some physical exertion somewhere on base and I was left alone in the gym’s locker room. I recall killing time by laying on the bench and singing to myself, seeing if I could remember all the words to the songs on Spirit of the West’s “Save This House” album which was my favourite at the time. That occupied me for a while. I also wanted to go Home for a Rest, the title of one of the tracks on there. (I also remember noticing for the first time that I could feel my hip bones. The things you discover when you have only yourself for company.)
The origin of the phrase “left to your own devices” predates devices like iPhones, tablets, and even television and while I can’t speak for the world as a whole, it can feel like local culture seems to be leaning toward a society where people have forgotten how to entertain themselves when no other entertainment is provided beforehand.
Not to be a hypocrite, mind you. These days I usually have my iPod running with a podcast when I take the bus or go for a walk rather than simply focus on the sights around me for the duration. But, that’s educational entertainment and potential blog fodder. That’s me using my time to best advantage. That’s me maybe making excuses.
I dunno. Thoughts? Think you’d prefer a shock than sit in a room with nothing to do? Sometimes I feel that way at work…