Many of us enjoy spare moments of solitude, particularly if we live with a spouse, children, siblings, or roommates. But, when it comes to having one’s own thoughts to oneself without any distractions, many balk.
Psychology Today blogger Bella DePaulo recently addressed a series of 11 studies published in Science Magazine in which subjects had to do nothing but sit in a room by themselves and think for 6 to 15 minutes, shutting off all devices and isolating themselves from other individuals. Most participants did not like the experience. In fact, the researchers found that many subjects opted to do a mundane task or even administer an electric shock to themselves rather than sit and do nothing.
DePaulo brings up intriguing questions about why some individuals see no appeal in sitting quietly with their own thoughts, free of diversions or conversation. She sums up by saying:
“My guess is that single people – especially those who are single at heart, and who live alone because they want to, are less allergic to their own thoughts than others. Some, I imagine, actually enjoy them. (Maybe the same is true of only children.)”
Having spent decades studying and writing about only children and their parents, I find it interesting that once again, in a discussion regarding aloneness, only children are thrown into the mix. While DePaulo seems to simply brainstorm ideas, I can’t help but wonder: Is she, too, buying into the persistent myth that only children spend so much time alone…and therefore are better able to be with their own thoughts?
“Only Child” Does Not Equal “Lonely Child”
While myths and stereotypes abound about how only children tend to have less friends, fewer playmates, and hence, less interactions outside of their “bubble,” findings help clarify that quite the opposite tends to be true.
Children without siblings have just as many friends as those who do have siblings. Douglas Downey and Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, coauthors of a study titled, "Good for Nothing: Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations among Adolescents" found that only children were just as popular as their peers with siblings. The researchers studied more than 13,000 middle and high school students nationwide. “In every combination we tested, siblings had no impact on how popular a student was among peers,” Bobbitt-Zeher said.
Having a sibling does not guarantee compatibility and having someone to interact with. Singletons are not necessarily lonely in this digital age—something I discussed in A Lonely Child? Not in Today's World— making the theory that only children are more comfortable being alone with their own thoughts less grounded. With social media and seemingly ever-present communication technology like cell phones and messaging apps, only children can network with friends at all hours, not only at school or during after-school activities or planned play dates.
Being as engaged with others from very young ages as those with siblings,only children may very well have been among the subjects in the 11 experiments who preferred an electric shock to solitude. Perhaps onlies were not singled out because the researchers realized that being an only child does not sentence a child to inordinate amounts of time spent alone.
Related: A Lonely Child? Not in Today’s World ; Who’s Telling Whom How Many Kids to Have?; Plays Well with Others; Why Stereotypes Stick
T. D. Wilson, D. A. Reinhard, E. C. Westgate, D. T. Gilbert, N. Ellerbeck, C. Hahn, C. L. Brown, A. Shaked. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 2014; 345 (6192): 75 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830
Downey, Douglas and Donna Bobbitt-Zeher “Growing Up Without Sibs Doesn't Hurt Social Skills.” (2010) http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/567369/?sc=lwhn
Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman
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