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Doing Something Beats Doing Nothing for Most People

Update Date: Jul 03, 2014 02:27 PM EDT

According to a new study, the majority of people do not like to sit alone with their thoughts. Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University discovered that people would rather be doing something, regardless of whether or not it is good or bad, instead of doing nothing at all.

For this study, the team headed by UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson carried out a series of 11 studies. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 77. They were asked to sit with their thoughts for as little as six minutes up to 15 minutes in a room without a cellphone, reading materials or writing tasks. The participants then answered questions about whether or not they enjoyed the alone time and if they had any difficulties concentrating. In some of the other experiments, the participants were given some kind of external activity to do, such as reading or listening to music.

The researchers found that regardless of age, the majority of the participants preferred to be doing some kind of external activity as opposed to sitting alone to daydream or think. The participants who did not enjoy doing nothing stated that it was hard to concentrate on any thing when there was nothing physical to do.

"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising - I certainly do - but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time," Wilson said reported in the press release. "That was surprising - that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking."

The researchers then took one step further to observe if people would rather do nothing or do something that was bad. The researchers recruited 18 men and 24 women who had to sit in the room alone for 15 minutes. The only activity available was administering an electric shock to themselves. Surprisingly, the researchers found that 12 men and six women decided to shock themselves at least once. However, many of them stated that they would have paid money to avoid getting shocked again.

"What is striking 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," the researchers said.

Wilson added, "The mind is designed to engage with the world. Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities."

The study was published in the journal, Science.

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