What is it like when you try to entertain yourself with your mind? Tim Wilson and colleagues just published a paper in Science that suggests that most people do not like such entertainment much at all. Here’s the NPR piece on it, complete with a link to the Science paper for those who have access to the journal:
In perhaps the most clever (of 11!) studies, people were asked (for 15 minutes) to entertain “yourself with your thoughts as best you can. That is, your goal should be to have a pleasant experience, as opposed to spending the time focusing on everyday activities or negative things.” If they wanted to they could, sometimes, give themselves a mild electric shock. Previously they had been given a sample of the shock and had rated it on a scale from 1 (very unpleasant) to 9 (very pleasant). Of those who rated it below the midpoint, 64% of men and 15% of women gave themselves at least one shock while entertaining themselves with their thoughts.
In other studies the authors find that many people report that it is unpleasant to try to entertain themselves with their thoughts and find ways to distract themselves from the task. In a community sample (people at farmer’s markets and Methodists, 49% of whom had post-graduate degrees! Ah, random samples of the world’s population!) age was unrelated to pleasantness of the experience.
A few things were related to enjoyment of the experience. Those higher in self-reported mindfulness (as measured by the MAAS, for those keeping score), higher in reappraisal and in suppression (per Gross’ measure), higher in both promotion and prevention focus (per Higgins’ measure), higher in positive affect, lower in stress, and higher in meditation experience found it more enjoyable. In analyzing what people thought about during this time (LIWC!), those who thought more about work found the process less enjoyable whereas those who thought about social contact found it enjoyable.
What to make of this all? I think I like it because it calls our attention to how unpleasant many people find it to be alone with their thoughts. We do not know from this study how common it is. (We would need, for instance, to get a random sample of the world’s population to start to know that. Good luck with that.) But I don’t think we need an exact estimate–we know that this is a common experience. If you have taken a meditation course at some point you likely have seen the newbies squirm. Heck, my guess is that at some point alone with your thoughts you wish you had chosen a better date.
But why is this so? The fact that Wilson and colleagues have called attention to the issue affords the opportunity to look more closely at what will doubtless be its many causes. I’ll offer a few thoughts. (1) Subjects here were from the United States, in which the preferred ideal emotion is excitement. Would Wilson have found the same results in populations (e.g., much of East Asia) with a preference for low arousal positive emotions such as tranquility? (2) Subjects who practiced meditation enjoyed the experience more. Note that this is correlational, so you can’t infer cause. But I would bet that practicing being alone with our thoughts would help us get both more familiar with and more skillful at being with our thoughts. In general we like that with which we are familiar and at which we are skilled. (3) Remember that many people think thoughts of themselves that they would not think in regards to their good friends. My best bet is that we do this (in part–there are doubtless many reasons) to motivate ourselves by thinking some fairly awful things. (Consider Norem and Cantor’s work on defensive pessimists. Some terrific students spend much time thinking of how certain imminent failure is, thereby motivating themselves to do well but living a rather miserable path to “success.”). If that’s the place you go to entertain yourself I could see why you would like the occasional electric shock instead.
And beyond the “why” questions Wilson’s work raises lurk the “so what” questions. My guess is the “so what” is big. If people will distract from their minds with shocks why not with drugs, bad relationships, and really poor selections of music and fiction? More generally if people are avoiding their thoughts they are in important ways controlled by that avoidance. If people want to live intentionally, how much more of a challenge will that be if they are instead being chased by, rather than embracing, the silence of their own presence?