Science Interviews


Tue, 8th Jul 2014

Men prefer electric shocks to thinking

Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia

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How long could you be left alone with your thoughts? 10 seconds? A minute?

According to a new study, humans really don't like to be left alone with nothing to do other than think. In fact, when The Thinkerparticipants were given the choice of thinking for up to 15 minutes or giving themselves a painful electric shock, 67% of men and a quarter of women would rather electrocute themselves.

So why do people find thinking so un-enjoyable? Well, Professor Timothy Wilson, a pyschologist at the University of Virginia, led the study and he spoke to Graihagh Jackson about the research...

Timothy -   Everyone was asked to take a sample electric shock to start with and it was kind of like a severe static shock.  Then we asked people to spend – in this case, it was 15 minutes, just thinking, but we told them that if they wanted, the shock was still available and if they could just press a button they’d get it again.  I have to say, we had no idea what to expect.  I mean, there were some of us on our research team who said, “Why are we doing this?  No one is going to shock themselves.”  But many people did, especially men, they seem to want to shock themselves out of boredom so to speak.

Graihagh -   Why?  Why would you choose to give yourself an electric shock?

Timothy -   I do think the human mind evolved to engage in the world.  It’s kind of disconcerting to have nothing to do for even that short period of time.  Some people just found it too difficult to sustained line of thought and wanted some sort of external stimulation.  The men were more likely to give themselves a shock.  It was two thirds of men and a quarter of women gave themselves at least one shock.  It varied.  There were some who just gave themselves one and some 3 or 4 or 5.  We did have one man who pressed the button 190 times much to our surprise.  I think given the nature of our shock apparatus, I'm not sure that he actually got 190 shocks.

Graihagh -   So, given this, why is thinking so unenjoyable?  Surely, it’s a part of normal people’s lives.  We daydream perhaps when we’re finding something a bit boring.  So, why is it so unenjoyable?

Timothy -   I don't want to exaggerate this.  I do think that all of us in our daily lives as you say, we do find our minds wandering to pleasant topics.  I think what's hard in our studies is doing this on the spot.  It’s kind of hard to turn it on and off, to keep one line of thought going for that long.  Maybe if people had just a little something else to do that it might actually free up their minds to think about other things because when people tell us they enjoy thinking, often, they are doing something else like walking or driving, or exercising.  So, maybe the difficulty is, that when the mind has absolutely nothing else to do, it’s just an uncomfortable state.


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