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The Lost Art of Thinking for Pleasure

People around the world prefer to be distracted than to think good thoughts.

Pxhere Used with Permission
Source: Pxhere Used with Permission

Here's a question: Would you rather engage in solitary activities such as reading a book or watching TV, or would you rather simply sit back and think enjoyable thoughts?

In America, the answer is clear. People would do just about anything to avoid being left with their own thoughts. Past research, for instance, has found people to be (irrationally) averse to idleness and motivated by busyness.

A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined whether the preference for doing over thinking applied equally to cultures around the world. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Nicholas Buttrick of the University of Virginia tested whether the preference for engaging in solitary activities emerged in 11 countries: Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

The researchers found, overwhelmingly, that it did.

"The preference for doing external activities such as reading, watching TV, or surfing the Internet rather than 'just thinking' appears to be strong throughout the world," state Buttrick and his team. "The results were consistent in every country."

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers designed an experiment to test people's preferences for engaging in solitary activities versus engaging in enjoyable thinking. In the experiment, 2,557 participants in the 11 countries were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half of the participants were asked to spend 10 to 15 minutes thinking freely and "entertaining themselves with their thoughts as best they could." The researchers requested that the other half entertain themselves by "watching TV, reading a book or a magazine, working on a puzzle, looking at the Internet, playing a videogame, or listening to music or the radio." Importantly, both groups were told to remain by themselves for the entirety of the experiment.

After the 10-to-15-minute time period had ended, the researchers asked participants to indicate the level of enjoyment, entertainment, and boredom they experienced during the experiment.

As stated, participants in all countries preferred engaging in solitary activities over thinking freely. (See graph below.) This difference was most pronounced among Belgians and Americans, and least pronounced among Serbians. Furthermore, the enjoyment people derived from thinking for pleasure was highest in Costa Rica and Serbia (but was still significantly lower than the enjoyment derived from engaging in external activities).

Buttrick et al. (2019)
"Enjoyment by country and condition."
Source: Buttrick et al. (2019)

The researchers speculate that thinking for pleasure is more difficult than engaging in distracting and enjoyable solitary activities. This, they suggest, might explain the cross-cultural consistency in the preference for "doing."

The researchers conclude, "Participants randomly assigned to do something reported significantly greater enjoyment than did participants randomly assigned to think for pleasure. [...] The uniformity of this finding among the participants and countries sampled here suggests that, across a wide variety of cultures, turning one’s attention inward to focus on enjoyable topics in the absence of any external cues is far less enjoyable than engaging in everyday activities such as reading or watching a video."

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Buttrick, N., Choi, H., Wilson, T. D., Oishi, S., Boker, S. M., Gilbert, D. T., ... & Dalgar, I. (2018). Cross-cultural consistency and relativity in the enjoyment of thinking versus doing. Journal of personality and social psychology.

Wilcox, K., Laran, J., Stephen, A. T., & Zubcsek, P. P. (2016). How being busy can increase motivation and reduce task completion time. Journal of personality and social psychology, 110(3), 371.

Hsee, C. K., Yang, A. X., & Wang, L. (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science, 21(7), 926-930.

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