Would You Rather Sit and Think or Give Yourself a Shock?

A new study challenges both introverts and extroverts.

Posted Jul 09, 2014

New research out of the University of Virginia published in the journal Science suggests that some people are so uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts, they would choose to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than just sit and think. The complete study confirmed that most people would rather do almost anything else than think alone and quietly.

I linked to an article about this on my Facebook page and not surprisingly, introverts had a lot of opinions about it. Many said that they're perfectly comfortable sitting quietly with their thoughts and, in fact, feel a need to. A couple blamed our techno-society, which has us constantly connected and busily tweeting, surfing, texting, etc. At least one suggested that this must be a problem only for extroverts.

I've looked at the original research paper and can report, first, that the researchers took into consideration our connection with technology by asking participants about their use of smart phones and social media. They conducted 10 studies in all—the one involving mild shocks was just one of a series with generally consistent results indicating people didn't enjoy sitting and thinking. And the team made sure that people of all ages—up to 79 years old, in fact— participated. So we can't necessarily point fingers at technology or Millenilals for this seeming failure of imagination.

Researchers only conducted a brief measurement of participants' Big Five personality traits (including extroversion), so that data is a little on the squishy side, but it does appear that extroverts aren't big on sittin’ and thinkin’.

Not surprising to anyone, I'm sure.

Considering the conditions under which much of this research was done, though, I have to wonder how much any of us would enjoy it: A lot of the experiments were done in a sparsely furnished room. After receiving instructions, participants were left alone to sit and think. In one experiment, they were given a rubber band to fiddle with, but that's the extent of distraction they were allowed (other than in the experiment that involved shocks).

But others participants did the experiment at home. They were advised to turn off their phones, televisions, and computers; to set aside reading material and any other distractions; and just sit and think. No getting up from the chair allowed. A lot of at-home participants found this very difficult—32 percent reported “cheating” by listening to music, looking at their cellphones, or getting up from the chair.

I gave it a try myself. I set a chair to face a blank wall in my office, closed the window blinds (although the study says nothing about whether there was a window in the lab), put all technological distractions out of reach, and set a timer for 12 minutes, about the length of time research participants were required to sit and think.

It wasn't much fun.

With my eyes open, I had a hard time not leaping from my chair and running from the experience. Closing my eyes, so I could at least watch the pictures in my head, helped. I tried not to meditate, since that wasn't the objective of the exercise—one was supposed to think, not clear the mind.

But my mind was not terribly entertaining. It pinballed all over the place, from planning and scheming, to imaginary conversations, to writing this blog post in my head. For a while, I opened my eyes and stared at my foot, but that did little to enhance the experience. I can't say that I would've administered a shock to myself had that option been available, but I also can't say for sure that I wouldn't. Bored and restless, I felt like I was in timeout, like I was Dennis the Menace sitting in a corner with his face to the wall.

The ring of the timer was sweet release.

Which is odd, because I really do like woolgathering. Like many introverts, I spend a lot of time deep in my own head. But there are differences. For one, I do it spontaneously, when, for whatever reason, my brain requires it. Daydreaming on demand is not the same as letting the mind wander at will. It's almost like being told to cry or laugh on demand.

The surroundings make a difference too. In a video discussing the studies, lead researcher Timothy D. Wilson references Henry David Thoreau as an example of someone who appreciated a good, long think. But for his thinking, Thoreau placed himself in beautiful natural surroundings. Put me on a mountaintop or beach, or even on my own front porch, and my mind will happily take flight, meandering pleasantly while I sit and watch birds at the feeder outside my office window. I can do this for far longer than is productive. I like walking and thinking, and thinking and walking.

I'm also happy alone with my thoughts if my hands are busy: Knitting and thinking. Doodling and thinking. A rubber band? Not so entertaining, although possibly better than my foot.

I'm curious to know what others think, especially introverts: Do you have 12 minutes to try this experiment? Are we right to feel that this research doesn't really apply to us? Remember, it’s not about whether or not we can do it; the question is whether we enjoy it.

Research is never a straight line. It's a zigzag or a spiral or concentric circles. It doesn't always lead where we'd hoped, or thought it would. So while these researchers mull over the pleasure we do or don't take in our own thoughts, my questions have gone in a different direction: What does this tell us about when, how, and where we think best? Can we do our best thinking in a windowless office? Do we overestimate the power of our own brains to entertain us absent any other distractions? Why do thoughts flow like a river sometimes and barely trickle out at others?

I don't know, but I'll think about it.

Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should GoSupport your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.

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