Today in science: can humans sit still and think for fifteen entire minutes?
“Just Think: The Challenges of a Disengaged Mind,” a social psychology study in the latest issue of Science Magazine, investigates this very quandary.
You are probably thinking it is not very fun to sit alone in a lab and do nothing. You would be correct! 49.3 percent of respondents reported “enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint.” While in the lab, 32 percent of participants reported that they had “cheated.” One thing that qualified as “cheating” in the study: “getting up out of their chair.” Researchers found that “participants reported that it was harder to concentrate on their thoughts when they were at home” (again, the reasons for this are myriad, obvious: while at home a person is surrounded by opportunities for actual things they could or should be doing, like laundry or cleaning or eating or showering or, best of all, napping). Participants who self-identified as people who “tend to be easily bored” were… bored.
I must be honest with you, readers: I was skeptical. About approximately everything in this study and also the value of said study. What did we learn here, really? So I called up David Reinhard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and one of the study’s authors. What was the point of this study, exactly?
“Initially, we were interested in seeing how well people could entertain themselves with only their thoughts,” he said. “There’s a lot of previous research in psychology on things like mind wandering and daydreaming, or what happens when these thoughts arrive. We were wondering how well people could intentionally entertain themselves with their thoughts.”
So 89.0 percent of respondents said that their “mind wandered” during the fifteen minutes of thinking time. This is an odd thing to report when you are someone who is literally instructed to “spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, with the only rules being that they should remain in their seats and stay awake.” What exactly constitutes “mind wandering” in this particular scenario: thinking about anything besides “I am sitting in a chair”? 57.5 percent of respondents “reported that it was difficult to concentrate” but, again, to concentrate on what?
Reinhard explained: “Usually when people were thinking during this period, they were trying to think of something pleasurable, like going to the beach. They’d be thinking or imagining, I’m walking up to the beach, laying down my towel. But a thought might pop up in their head: did I remember to submit my online homework last night?… Even though there wasn’t anything competing for their attention — we removed all external distractions, took away their phones — while they were thinking about whatever event they tried to entertain themselves with, they had these day-to-day activities that would pop up and distract them.”
The study asks, “Would participants enjoy themselves more if they had something to do?” Why even ask such an obvious question?
“In the initial studies, when we showed people didn’t have a very good time during the thinking period, there was never really a comparison,” he said. “Well, they don’t like it, but compared to what? So what was to show people enjoy doing something [like] interacting with the external world, as opposed to interacting with their own thoughts.”
Naturally people like doing things that are fun — reading, listening to music, “surfing the Web” — more than they like not doing things. This is why dentists keep magazines in waiting rooms; this is one of the reasons the DMV is hell, and also why when people are being interrogated, they are left alone under fluorescent lights and are not offered a novel to read in between questions.
The really surprising finding, I think, is that people would rather do something “unpleasant” than nothing at all. Participants had the opportunity to deliver themselves an electric shock, a “negative stimuli.” In the study, participants were all able to zap themselves pre-experiment, so as to take curiosity-as-motivator out of the equation. Which means people actually would rather engage in some unpleasant external activity than be left to do absolutely nothing.
“We’re interested in seeing if people can be trained to do this well, and also seeing if there are benefits to being able to do this well,” said Reinhard. “It seems like it could be a useful tool to kind of have on hand, especially for instances where people maybe doing unpleasant activities that they’d usually try to avoid: going to the dentist’s office, experiencing a painful procedure. Being able to retreat into your mental state seems like it’d be beneficial to do.” A note on sample size: the maximum number of participants in any of these scenarios was 413, the lowest was only 30 people, and the rest had less than 100. Then again, according to Reinhard, there’s no such thing as an “average” sample size in psychology; some studies are done with as few as ten participants, some as many as hundreds of thousands. Do with that what you will.
Still, one could argue that “People prefer doing to thinking” is a super exciting conclusion that you definitely could have figured out for yourself just by watching how people behave on, say, airplanes. Is this all a report from the front lines of obviousness?
Reinhard, for the defense: “Some people find [this study] to be really fascinating and neat, and some people find it to be really obvious, that we already know this. You could say the same thing about a lot of psychology studies. The thing with running experiments is, people have these common sense intuitions that [can] end up being contradictory [to the findings]. Running the experiments means we get to test them and see which one ends up being the case.”
Fair point. Sometimes, we have to do studies that explore the obvious because we can just as easily hold on to an “obvious” idea that is completely, scientifically false as we can an “obvious” notion that is, as in this instance, totally true. And the only way to find out is to test the theories — in labs.