Alone With Their Thoughts

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have found that people do not enjoy being alone with their thoughts:

The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this “thinking period” wasn’t very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.

“That was surprising — that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.

He does not necessarily attribute this to the fast pace of modern society, or the prevalence of readily available 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, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it. Based on these surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time “relaxing or thinking.”

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 difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.

“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.”

An additional experiment randomly assigned participants to spend time with their thoughts or the same amount of time doing an external activity, such as reading or listening to music, but not to communicate with others. Those who did the external activities reported that they enjoyed themselves much more than those asked to just think, that they found it easier to concentrate and that their minds wandered less.

The real “grabber” is this bit though:

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 also administering a mild electric shock to themselves 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.

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Weapons Man notes a similar empirical discovery by the men developing the original Special Forces Qualification Course, which has led to every subsequent edition of SFQC including some type of isolation period:

In the field exercise portion, soldiers were isolated in the woods for approximately five days and four nights. There would always be a number of people who had never been alone before for a single night of their young lives, and who found this aspect of the survival training extremely difficult. Some would endure. Some would fire the flare that would draw instructors to their location and write an ignominious end to their Green Beret aspirations.


Certainly the introverts and the self-sufficient (two sets with a large intersection, but not entirely the same) did well in the old survival exercise, at least on the isolation axis of measurement. It wasn’t the sole purpose of the drill. One also had 14 or 15 mandatory tasks to accomplish, some of them difficult and time-consuming, and had to obey rules like not linking up with other students — or at least, avoid getting caught breaking the rules. But it was one important aspect of Special Forces training that produced operators capable of individual operations, although those were almost never done deliberately. It also identified for SF men for whom the de facto isolation of being the only American amid a group of strange foreigners of different race, language and culture, would not be too stressful.

Needless to say, those who came through the isolation exercise best were usually those for whom being isolated and alone for several days was nothing new, including hunters, hikers, single-hand sailors, and other adventuresome youth.

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