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Jul 06, 2014 11:57 PM EDT

Most People Would Rather Shock Themselves Than Be Alone With Their Thoughts

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Most people are uncomfortable with doing nothing and being alone with their thoughts, according to a recent study the Daily Digest News reported.

After a series of studies, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that most would rather be doing something -- possibly even hurting themselves -- than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts.

"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising - I certainly do - but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time," Timothy Wilson, researcher and psychologist at the University of Virginia, said in a statement.  

In a series of 11 studies, Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this "thinking period" wasn't very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years old, and found essentially the same results.

"That was surprising - that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.

During several of Wilson's experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes -- depending on the study -- entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.

Researchers found that most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.

The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, "Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?"

The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of also administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study's 15-minute "thinking" period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves.

Wilson and his team note that men tend to seek "sensations" more than women, which may explain why 67 percent of men self-administered shocks to the 25 percent of women who did.

The research team is still working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.

"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."

The findings were recently published in the journal Science.

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