Study: People dislike loneliness

Study: People dislike loneliness

Sunday, July 6, 2014 1:12 am

Most peo­ple dis­like be­ing alone with their own thoughts—and many would even rath­er give them­selves elec­tric shocks than just sit qui­et­ly, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

In a se­ries of 11 stud­ies, psy­chol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Wil­son and col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Vir­gin­ia and Har­vard Uni­vers­ity found that study par­ti­ci­pants from a range of ages gen­er­ally did­n’t en­joy spend­ing even brief pe­ri­ods alone in a room with noth­ing to do but think, pon­der or day­dream. The par­ti­ci­pants, by and large, en­joyed much more do­ing ex­ter­nal ac­ti­vi­ties such as lis­ten­ing to mu­sic or us­ing a smart­phone. Some even pre­ferred to give them­selves mild shocks.

“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. The find­ings are pub­lished July 4 in the jour­nal Sci­ence

A lonely man at the seaside

A lonely man at the seaside

“Even old­er peo­ple did not show any par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for be­ing alone think­ing,” Wil­son said.

He does­n’t nec­es­sarily at­trib­ute this to so­ci­ety’s fast pa­ce or the prev­a­lence of elec­tron­ic de­vices, such as smart­phones. In­stead, he thinks the de­vices might be a re­sponse to peo­ple’s de­sire to al­ways have some­thing to do. In his pa­per, Wil­son notes that broad sur­veys have shown that peo­ple gen­er­ally pre­fer not to dis­en­gage from the world. Based on the sur­veys, Amer­i­cans spent their time watch­ing tel­e­vi­sion, so­cial­iz­ing or read­ing, and ac­tu­ally spent lit­tle or no time “re­lax­ing or think­ing.”

“The mind is de­signed to en­gage with the world,” he said. “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.”

Dur­ing sev­er­al of Wil­son’s ex­pe­ri­ments, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to sit alone in an un­adorned room at a lab­o­r­a­to­ry with no cell phone, read­ing ma­te­ri­als or writ­ing im­ple­ments, and to spend six to 15 min­utes – de­pend­ing on the study – en­ter­tain­ing them­selves with their thoughts. Af­ter­ward, they an­swered ques­tions about how much they en­joyed the ex­perience and if they had dif­fi­culty con­cen­trat­ing, among oth­er ques­tions.

Most re­ported they found it hard to con­cen­trate and that their minds wan­dered, though noth­ing was com­pet­ing for their at­ten­tion. On av­er­age the par­ti­ci­pants said they did­n’t en­joy the ex­perience. A si­m­i­lar re­sult was found in fur­ther stud­ies when the par­ti­ci­pants were al­lowed to spend time alone with their thoughts at home.

“We found that about a third ad­mit­ted that they had ‘cheat­ed’ at home by en­gag­ing in some ac­ti­vity, such as lis­ten­ing to mu­sic or us­ing a cell phone, or leav­ing their chair,” Wil­son said. “And they did­n’t en­joy this ex­perience any more at home than at the lab.”

The re­search­ers took their stud­ies fur­ther. Be­cause most peo­ple pre­fer hav­ing some­thing to do rath­er than just think­ing, they then asked, “Would they rath­er do an un­pleas­ant ac­ti­vity than no ac­ti­vity at al­l?” The re­sults show that many would. Par­ti­ci­pants were giv­en the same cir­cum­stances as most of the pre­vi­ous stud­ies, with the added op­tion of giv­ing them­selves a mild elec­tric shock by press­ing a but­ton.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave them­selves at least one elec­tric shock dur­ing the stu­dy’s 15-minute “think­ing” pe­ri­od. By com­par­i­son, six of 24 fe­males shocked them­selves. All of these par­ti­ci­pants had re­ceived a sam­ple of the shock and re­ported that they would pay to avoid be­ing shocked again.

Wil­son said that he and his col­leagues are still work­ing on the ex­act rea­sons why peo­ple find it hard to be alone with their own thoughts. Eve­ry­one en­joys day­dreaming or fan­ta­siz­ing at times, he said, but these kinds of think­ing may be most en­joyable when they hap­pen spon­ta­ne­ous­ly, and are harder to do on com­mand.

.Courtesy of University of Virginia and World Science Staff

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