Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
7/11/2014
06:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Geekend: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself

Could you sit still doing nothing for 15 minutes? I bet you can't.

Do you know those stories about animals that get caught in a trap and chew a leg off rather than stay there? According to a recent study, people feel the same way about just sitting in a room, even their own rooms, and would literally rather hurt themselves than be subjected to the experience for even 15 minutes. If being in our own heads is a trap, there are profound social implications.

The study, conducted at the University of Virginia, asked adults ranging in age from 18 to 77 to sit in a laboratory room alone -- with no music, book, phone, or other distraction, just their own thoughts -- for a mere six to fifteen minutes. Most people said they didn't enjoy the downtime. They found that their minds wandered and that it was hard to concentrate.

Thinking that it had to do with the laboratory environment, the researchers asked people to repeat the study in a place more conducive to relaxation, their own homes. The results were the same, with most participants saying they didn't like the experience and a third admitting to cheating.

Here's a video of one of the study participants:

It's easy to call the people in this study big babies, but they aren't outliers. There's a reason jail is considered a punishment rather than a vacation. You're cut off from the normal activity of society and left with your own thoughts.

But it's the next phase of the study that's really frightening. The researchers subjected 18 men and 24 women to a mild electric shock. All the men and women agreed that they'd rather not experience the shock again and, according to the researchers, would "pay to make sure it didn't happen again." They then asked those same people to spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to occupy them except a button that would administer the same electric shock they had already experienced.

Some 75% of the men and 25% of the women actually pressed the button at least once, shocking themselves on purpose. They couldn't sit there for 15 minutes alone with their thoughts, so they broke things up by hurting themselves.

You might be inclined to chalk this reaction up to smartphone or TV addiction, but the researchers think it's more than that. Study lead Timothy Wilson said: "The mind is designed to engage with the world. Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world."

I think there's also a set of social norms at work here. We're trained to be active and social. Doing nothing is punished in our society in a number of ways. Watch what happens when a set of students participates in an experiment of doing nothing on the campus of Georgia Southern.

As the video shows, people got downright hostile to the students for simply breaking the social norm and standing still. They were yelled at and confronted. The people confronting the abnormal behavior felt threatened, and we all know the social consequences of breaking social norms.

Being alone and doing nothing becomes uncomfortable even if no one sees us. That's why when we're home we'd rather waste hours and hours watching YouTube or TV than sit quietly with our thoughts. Watch this time lapse of a person who claims he spent all day at home doing nothing:

As you can see, he didn't do "nothing." What he should have indicated is that he did nothing important. He spent 16 hours constantly going from one entertainment option to another without ever doing anything of consequence. Imagine if he actually sat there and really did nothing.

One of the places this issue has come up recently is on airline flights. The recent policy change to let passengers use electronic equipment at altitudes of under 10,000 feet has been met with a combination of joy and derision. People have been using their devices as a way to escape their own thoughts. People would feel stranger sitting quietly looking out the window than they would looking at their phones. The phone protects them from social deviance. This is what happens if they don’t have their phones:

Let's go back to the prison example because this is where it gets frightening. Imagine a prisoner in solitary confinement, which in most US prisons means 20 or more hours a day alone in a room with little or nothing to separate you from your thoughts. Even when out of their cells, these inmates are kept away from other people and denied access to education or any other distracting activity.

It's no wonder then that prisoners in solitary confinement have a high rate of mental illness and recidivism. More than 25,000 prisoners per year in New York State alone go from solitary confinement directly back to the outside world.

If most of us can't handle our own head for six to fifteen minutes, how do we expect prisoners to do it for days and months on end? If we would prefer to hurt ourselves rather than to sit with no distractions, imagine how much prisoners would like to hurt themselves or others after a few days of solitary. Clearly, this is a form of punishment, but if you expect someone to come out of solitary having "learned his lesson," you need to take this study into account.

Every person isn't affected by quiet the same way. Some of us crave it. Some of us enjoy it spontaneously but can't deal with it while it's enforced. What seems like a simple study that pokes fun at people for not being able to sit still has relevance for how we deal with imprisonment, how we help the aging or disabled who are confined to their homes, and how we view social settings such as the airplane or library, where behavioral norms are different from our standard day.

Before you make fun of the study participants, try sitting in a room for 15 minutes without anything to distract you. Report the results here. Did the experience give you a different perspective on some of the issues broached above? Could you handle "the hole?" Do you think that people who like (or at least can handle) the quiet are different in some way? Are they smarter or more creative, or less so? Comment below.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 2 / 4   >   >>
impactnow
67%
33%
impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
7/12/2014 | 2:48:47 AM
Quiet time

Wow I would love to see if this has changed over time because of our always connected environment. I can sit for 15 minutes and do nothing, it's kind of a mental meditation exercise I like to do. It gives me clarity to move onto tasks in a more organized fashion. I do think that I am unusual however because I know people that cannot sit still or even stand still. Maybe it's a skill we need to teach individuals at a young age, how to entertain themselves with their imagination and how to calm themselves through peaceful meditative thoughts.

David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 6:15:37 PM
Re: I love running marathons...
@progman2000- I have to give the Puddy props to our own Rob Preston. I had forgotten the scene. He suggested it. It is a classic, and I owe it to him. I hope you don't think less of me for it. :)
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 6:13:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@Thomas- They can't really specify because everyone's pain tolerance is different. But the way the study descirbes it, everyone was asked to do it once. They all agreed it hurt. And they all agreed that they didn't want to experience it again. And they all agreed that if they could, they would pay to avoid a similar shock in the future.

So, you know, we're talking significant enough no one would have volunteered for it before they were asked to sit there.
progman2000
50%
50%
progman2000,
User Rank: Moderator
7/11/2014 | 4:44:51 PM
I love running marathons...
which means I spend hour upon hour running by myself to train, usually with no music player or nothing but my own thoughts.  Not the same as sitting in solitary, but I still think I can handle doing nothing before shocking myself.

Regardless, major props for a post incorporating David Puddy - love that guy.
Thomas Claburn
100%
0%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 4:14:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
Does the study specify how significant the shock was and whether its severity (or lack of it) was accurately conveyed? If it were no more than the static electricity jolt from taking off a sweater in winter, then the suggestion that harm is preferable to boredom is just wrong. If it were like being hit with a taser that's another thing -- and I'd bet far fewer people would try that out of boredom.

15 minutes soulds like a nice nap.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:37:11 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@Alison- They were asked to do this both in a lab environment and at home. And at home they didn't do any better. 

One wonders if we haben't gotten so busy we don't know how to not be. I also wish we had run this experiment 50 years ago to see if there was a difference.
Alison_Diana
100%
0%
Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 3:17:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
When I first read this study I found the results pretty odd and reading everyone's reactions, it seems even odder. I would like to know more about the participants, that's for sure, as well as where they sat for those 15 minutes. This study raises more questions than it answers, to be honest! Everyone is so crazed, between work and home, that having the luxury of 15 minutes to veg out and sit idly sounds deliriously wonderful.
willjordan
100%
0%
willjordan,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:10:00 PM
Re: Meditation
It certainly wouldn't hurt, but I think that there are a couple of other considerations here. I think that there are far too many people going to prison and/or have mandatory minimum sentences far in excess of their danger to society. I think we need to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment; there are far too many prisoners in solitary confinement. If a person is going to get out of prison, they ought to get out in better shape thatn they went in. Otherwise, incarceration just postpones and intesifies the problem. But that is a whole other topic in some ways. I've recently read a couple of articles on the creation of a permanent underclass where any jail time is a life sentence to restricted rights and difficulty to return to society because of social and legal stigma. It's something that bears further study. will
jastroff
100%
0%
jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 3:03:28 PM
Re: Meditation
made me laugh, @dave
David Wagner
100%
0%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:01:55 PM
Re: Meditation
@jastro- Yes, you lost me, but it isn't all about me. Well yes, it is all about me. But not everyone else realizes it. :)
<<   <   Page 2 / 4   >   >>
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Trying to meet today’s business technology needs with yesterday’s IT organizational structure is like driving a Model T at the Indy 500. Time for a reset.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - September 10, 2014
A high-scale relational database? NoSQL database? Hadoop? Event-processing technology? When it comes to big data, one size doesn't fit all. Here's how to decide.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.