Humans can be an inquisitive bunch, but there are clearly some limits. Sooner than be alone in a room with their thoughts—no cellphone, no books, no TV, no distractions—researchers found that a quarter of people would rather submit themselves to a self-inflicted electric shock, according to a recently published study in Science.
“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,” Timothy Wilson, the lead author of the study and University of Virginia professor of psychology told the Washington Post.
Thomas told the Post the researchers tried to make it as easy as possible for the participants, giving them time before beginning the experiment to plan what they were going to think about, but it didn’t seem to help. As the researchers noted that people craved distractions, they decided to put that premise to the test. The researchers gave participants a device (powered by a nine-volt battery) that would give them a electric shock with the press of a button the participants would control.
“We weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” Wilson told the Post. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.” When left in a room alone for 15 minutes, 20 percent of the women and 66 percent of the men shocked themselves with the device, with one man shocking himself 190 times in 15 minutes, baffling Wilson and the researchers.
“We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts,” Wilson told the Atlantic. “And we just kept doing study after study finding that—for many people, anyway—not so much.”
If you’re thinking technology may be the cause, think again. Participants who used social media less didn’t fare better in the experiment. The truth is humans need distractions. “We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions,” Wilson told the Post. “But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.”
This issue will undoubtedly need further research and studies, as the researchers only conducted 11 experiments with 40 to 100 university students participating. As for the high rate of men shocking themselves in comparison to the women, the researchers wrote that it could be attributed to men being more “sensation seeking” than women, which could explain the outlier who thought shocking himself 190 times was a great idea. It remains to be seen if this study can be used to get your phone back from the center of the table at dinner parties.