Electric Shocks Preferred to Thinking (Especially by Men)

Digital devices aren’t to blame for our distracted minds

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Stephen Cass: Hi, I’m Stephen Cass, and welcome to IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” There’s been plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that we’re choosing the endless distractions provided by our digital devices over quiet reflection. But now there’s some hard evidence about how strong the aversion to being alone with our thoughts is.

Researchers in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted a series of experiments to see just how well people coped with doing nothing. The most startling finding was that people would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks rather than just sit with their thoughts for 15 minutes. Here to discuss the results is Erin Westgate, a graduate student in social psychology, who worked on the research, which was recently published in Science. She joins us now by phone from the University of Virginia. Erin, welcome to the show.

Erin Westgate: Hi, happy to be here!

Stephen Cass: So your paper in Science is called “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” What do you mean by a disengaged mind, and why is such a state of mind important? Is it different from meditation?

Erin Westgate: Yes, so a disengaged mind is a mind that is not engaged in the world around it. So you might think of this as instead of looking at everything going on around you, and focusing on that, you really pull yourself inward, and focus on your own mind, and your own thoughts, divorced from that outside world. And I think this is really important. It’s something that has been valued by philosophers, religious leaders, for hundreds, even thousands of years. And I think it has great value to be able to sit and just think.

Stephen Cass: And so how does this differ from, say, meditation?

Erin Westgate: So meditation we usually think of as emptying the mind of thoughts, and thinking, in a way, is almost the opposite. Instead of emptying the mind, you want to fill your mind up with things. So they both have a sort of similar goal, in having this mental discipline to focus your thoughts on something, but what they’re trying to do is really the opposite from each other: emptying the thoughts [versus filling] the thoughts.

Stephen Cass: So can you tell me a little bit about the experimental setup you used to study people’s aversion to thinking, especially how they came to be self-administering electric shocks?

Erin Westgate: Yes! So we brought people into the lab, and the first thing we did is we took all of their personal possessions away from them, so no cellphones, no watches, no iPods, nothing like that, and then we just sat them in this small, empty room with no windows, and we told them that they only had two rules: They couldn’t get out of their chairs, and they couldn’t fall asleep. And we asked them to spend 10 to 15 minutes just trying to entertain themselves with their own thoughts, and we made it really, really clear that we wanted them to have a pleasant experience, that they should be happy thoughts, not making a grocery list, or something like that. And so we told them: Sit here for 10 to 15 minutes, try to entertain yourself with your thoughts—if you want to, you can press this button. And there was a button right there that connected to an electrode on their ankle, and at any time during that period, while they were supposed to be thinking, they could shock themselves if they wanted to. And they had experienced the shock before, it was one of the first things we did when they came into the lab; we let them experience the shock, see how it works. We asked them if they enjoyed it, we asked if they would be willing to pay money to not be shocked again, and most people didn’t like the shock; they said it wasn’t enjoyable. Then we just asked them to sit there, try to entertain themselves with their thoughts. We gave them the option of shocking themselves if they wanted to, and we were absolutely astounded at the end of the study when about 25 percent of the women and 67 percent of the men actually chose to shock themselves instead of just think.

Stephen Cass: So in the paper, you write that at the conclusion of the thinking period, you asked participants to describe what they had been thinking about, and then you analyzed these reports with linguistic, analytic software. Can you talk about what this involved? What did you learn?

Erin Westgate: Sure, so Kennebaker has this great software that does text analysis, so it takes all the different words and groups them into different categories, so you might have self-related words, like I, me, mine, and social-related words, like we, us, together. And what we then did was look to see whether certain groups of words were associated with enjoying the thinking period more. And what we found was that people who thought about other people, who had these social inclusion words, they seemed to enjoy the study slightly more than people who didn’t think about those things. And particularly thinking about bad things was really, really, really bad. People did not enjoy it if they thought about negative things, which makes sense.

Stephen Cass: People in creative fields, such as writers, scientists, and engineers, depend on daydreaming, to some degree, to do their work. Yet many of the people in your study were creative people. Why do you think even professional thinkers have such difficulty disengaging?

Erin Westgate: That’s a good question. I think the very, very simple answer is: This is something that is not easy, it’s not something that comes naturally to the brain, and we can do it—I absolutely believe we can do it—but it takes a lot of effort. You know, you hear about creative people getting writer’s block all the time, or creative blocks, where they can’t quite sit and daydream like they need to to do their work. And I think that ties back into the fact that this is fundamentally hard. I suspect some people are better at it than others, but doing it on command at a designated time, I think it’s just hard for anybody.

Stephen Cass: As a researcher, you note that you study productive procrastination, implicit cognition, deliberate reverie, and boredom. Do each of these encourage a particular kind of thinking? And what’s the value of boredom?

Erin Westgate: Boredom is interesting. It’s something that psychology has really only started to look at in recent years, I would say. And there’s some argument that boredom matters, because what boredom tells us is that what we’re doing isn’t helpful. So if we have some goal, and we’re not making progress toward that goal, we feel bored. This could be even something as simple as a goal of having an interesting time. So boredom sort of acts as a signal to disengage and do something else. And that’s really interesting, because sometimes boredom may be wrong. So it thinks that you’re not making progress toward a goal, but you are. So if you’re working on a boring lab report, for instance, it may actually be quite important, but emotionally you may be getting those indications: “No, I don’t want to do this, I should do this later.” And that may not always be adaptive. So really, it’s looking at how boredom manifests in all these different ways that I find superinteresting, personally.

Stephen Cass: So what applications do you think your research and your observations might have? Is your work useful for figuring out how people learn?

Erin Westgate: I think it is. I think a lot of times we blame the person when they’re having a hard time sitting down and thinking. I mean, just think of elementary school teachers and rowdy elementary school students who can’t just sit still and think. And I think what our research is really suggesting is that it’s much harder than that, and that we think this is something that should come naturally, but it’s not. And that’s great. If we know that, we can figure out why it’s hard, and if we can figure out why it’s hard, we can figure out what we can do to make it easier for people. And that’s really our focus right now in our research. We have great studies planned for the fall, and we’re hoping we can start to tease out ways to make it easier for people to do this.

Stephen Cass: So I alluded in my introduction to the distractions provided by digital devices. Did you see any evidence that the difficulty of this disengaged thinking is caused by these kinds of distractions, is caused by technology?

Erin Westgate: You know, we really “wanted” to find that, and we really thought there would be a connection. But when we asked people we didn’t find hardly any correlation between how much people used their cell phones, or how much they were on social media, and how much they enjoyed the thinking period, or gave themselves electric shocks. Which I personally find really surprising. It may be that our use of technology isn’t so much a cause of our difficulty with thinking, but a symptom of it. We have a hard time thinking, and there’s a phone in our pocket and it’s perfectly designed to entertain us, and it’s so much easier than just sitting and concentrating.

Stephen Cass: Fascinating. Well, Erin, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

Erin Westgate: No problem, thank you.

Stephen Cass: We’ve been speaking with Erin Westgate about a recent study that shows how reluctant people are to really be alone with their thoughts. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Stephen Cass.

This interview was recorded 22 July 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein

Photo: Mike Kemp/Getty Images

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