On Being Alone With One’s Thoughts

Study: most people dislike being alone with their thoughts
July 4, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Virginia and World Science staff

Most people dislike being alone with their own thoughts—and many would even rather give themselves electric shocks than just sit quietly, according to new research.

In a series of 11 studies, psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally didn’t enjoy spending even brief periods alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild shocks.

“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,” Wilson said. The findings are published July 4 in the Journal Science.

“Even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.

He doesn’t necessarily attribute this to society’s fast pace or the prevalence of electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people’s desire to always have something to do. In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world. Based on the surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time “relaxing or thinking.”

“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” he said. “Even when we are by our¬selves, 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.”

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.

Most reported they found it hard to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants said they didn’t enjoy the ex experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts at home.

“We found that about a third admitted that they had ‘cheated’ at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”

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 giving them¬selves a mild electric shock 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. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it hard to be alone with their own thoughts. Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are harder to do on command.


About Bruce Louis Dodson

Bruce Louis Dodson is an American expat now living in Borlänge, Sweden with his wife, cat and dog. He is an artist and world traveler who writes fiction and poetry and practices photography in his less than copious free time. His work has appeared in: Barely South Review - Boundaries Issue, Blue Collar Review, Pulsar Poetry (UK), Foliate Oak, Breadline Press West Coast Anthology . The E-buffet, Qarrtsiluni, Struggle Magazine, Pearl Literary Magazine, Contemporary Literature Review: India, 3rd Wednesday, Sleeping Cat Books - Trip of a Lifetime Anthology, Northern Liberties Review, Authors Abroad - Foreign & and Far Away Anthology, The Path, Page & Spine, The Crucible, Sleeping Cat Books -Trips of a Lifetime, Vine Leaves, Pirene's Fountain,Tic Toc Anthology - Kind of a Hurricane Press, Cordite Poetry Review, Buffalo Almanac and mgv2.
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11 Responses to On Being Alone With One’s Thoughts

  1. authorjim says:

    Bruce, I’m having a little trouble swallowing this. I can’t help wondering what criteria was used in choosing the participants for this study. In fact, I am automatically suspicious of every study because nearly all of them are designed to get a predetermined result. I would say that, if that study is truly representative, it shows why so many people lack creativity. Whether it is designing woodcraft projects, writing poetry or writing a novel, I get most of my ideas and all of my best ones while I am completely alone with my thoughts.

    • bldodson says:

      I believe this survey is valid.
      One need only look around, cell phones, TV, elevator music. So hard to get away from noise and distractions.
      I think most writers will fall into this category of ‘being alone with their thoughts’.

  2. How amazing – did they only pick extraverts… can’t think of anything nicer than being alone and undisturbed with my thoughts !!!!

    • bldodson says:

      I totally agree with you, I suspect there are not that many of us.
      One need only look around, cell phones, TV, elevator music. So hard to get away from noise and distractions.
      I think most writers will fall into this category of ‘being alone with their thoughts’.

  3. Electric shocks eh? Perhaps if they had the choice of being with their own thoughts or getting a poke in the eye with a burnt stick the results could have been different. 😉 I can see why people can’t turn inwards for some relaxation with so many distractions in the world. I love my own company and thoughts and can slip into meditation quite quickly. There’s plenty happening inside this bloke’s head.

  4. I like “alone.” I want more of it. Silence is golden.

  5. Chris says:

    I heard about this study on the radio, and like the others who commented here, I can’t imagine why anyone would not want to be alone with their thoughts. Alone time is the best time! (And that includes time not spent on the internet, because I don’t feel alone online.)

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