Alone or Lonely?

Picture taken from www.bryanhardwick.comI don’t know how else to start this post than to admit that I found myself absolutely riveted by the abstract to this article, which is as follows:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Although the human being is unique in his or her capacity to engage in inward reflection (i.e., thought), little is known about whether this is an enjoyable state that people willingly choose over other options. The point, then, of the published article, entitled “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind” was to determine how enjoyable the unadorned “thinking state” is, and whether humans will seek out or avoid this state if given other options with which to occupy their mind.  In a variety of tests, study participants reported strong dissatisfaction with conditions in which they were stripped of all diversions (phones, paper/pencil, belongings) and left in a sterile environment with instructions just “to think.”  External, non-social activities such as reading or surfing the web were far more enjoyable than internal, non-social thinking. So, fine, people like having something to do, or something to think about. But here’s where the studies really became intriguing. I paraphrase the results as follows:

In part 1 of the study, participants rated the pleasantness of several positive stimuli (e.g., attractive photographs) and negative stimuli (e.g., an electric shock). Participants also reported how much they would pay to experience or not experience each stimulus again, if they were given $5. Next, participants received our standard instructions to entertain themselves with their thoughts (in this case for 15 min). If they wanted, they learned, they could receive an electric shock again during the thinking period by pressing a button. We went to some length to explain that the primary goal was to entertain themselves with their thoughts and that the decision to receive a shock was entirely up to them. Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation—especially men: 67% of men gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period… [including one outlier who administered 190 shocks to himself], compared to 25% of women. Note that these results only include participants who had reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again. But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min 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.

Wow. Given that studies estimate that 30-50% of the U.S. population is introverted, these data don’t seem to be attributable to a sampling issue (i.e., by luck of the draw, study participants included too many extroverts who truly hated being alone). So, then, what is it about being left alone with our thoughts that is so unpleasant that we engage in multiple distracting behaviors to avoid it, even to the extent that we’ll utilize unpleasant behaviors? Is it simply that boredom is too unfamiliar and uncomfortable in this high-stimulus world? Or, is it too hard when alone to refrain from destructive, negative thoughts that demoralize us? Is the difference between being alone and being lonely just too small for many of us to tolerate?


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