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7/11/2014
06:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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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.

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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
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yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
7/30/2014 | 4:57:01 PM
Re: Quiet time
@impactnow: Most people who are asked to sit still for 15 minutes cannot day dream, whereas we spend at least half an hour of the day sitting still and daydreaming and still we don't get bored. This all has to deal with situational awareness.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
7/30/2014 | 4:55:58 PM
Having the right to say
This unique ability of human mind to craft some form of hurt to make things interesting made me realize that in the corporate sector we see such risks undertaken as well. Most corporate leaders claim they are bored with all their daily activities and therefore they start taking risks, which may hurt the company or may give the company a leading edge.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Moderator
7/24/2014 | 2:05:00 PM
Guess not everyone gets meditation
I was really surprised by these results. 10 minutes and people would rather shock themselves? Obviously they didn't get any parents with young kids, where 10 minutes of nothing might be entirely relaxing. While i don't often find the time anymore i used to meditate 15 minutes daily, consisting of a darkened room, no sound if possible and no distractions. It was a good thing, making me more energized and focuses through the day. all those people inthe experiement would benefit from taking a bit of time away from mindless gadget doings and taking a bit of time of mindfulness nothingness.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 8:17:18 PM
Re: Quiet time

 I think this is what we are losing in world where people are always connected for either work or personal reasons.

 

@PedroGonzales   Well said and I could not agree more.  It is sad to see that most do not have enough self awareness to center themselves again.   Ok, I can understand the young probably don't understand this, but there are unfortunately many adults who do not either understand or acknowledge the necessity to be mentally and emotionally centered.  

 

The practice of Meditation aids this of course.   And there are many ways to practice it - but it needs to be practice by many more than actually do.

Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 8:10:29 PM
Re: Quiet time

I really did try to sit for the 15mins.    And I am sure I can do it no problem, but all the coffee I had prior to the test made it nearly impossible.    But I agree with the general feeling along the thread - Meditation is where is it at !    The opportunity to close out the noise of society is priceless.  

 

So without too much coffee, finding inner peace is almost easy.  For those who don't practice meditation regularly, then I highly encourage you to try it.  

PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 5:15:57 PM
Re: Quiet time
I agree.  In some cases, seating quietly is very beneficial.  It allows a person to reflect on their life.  This is a form of meditation.  I think this is what we are losing in world where people are always connected for either work or personal reasons.  Let me take my 15 minute break right now.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/15/2014 | 2:19:34 AM
Re: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself
Anoter interesting study (or, study of a study) on the Geekend, Dave! People are expressing some skepticism about the study in the comments, and that's good; that's why we're here. It seems like "studies" are a dime a dozen these days, and they're often shamelessly reposted until you get a case of phone tag where the original intent of the study is lost. The Geekend is a little better, though - we use the study as the starting point for a conversation, not the ending point. On thate note, I agree with everyone's concerns about the electroshock portion of the study. It seems a little loaded - the people knew they were part of a study to see whether they would push the button, so doesn't that kind of stack the odds from the beginning?

I think discussion about social norms, while interesting, inherently puts us in a grey area. As you say, Dave, it's hard to really draw many conclusions from this info without knowing if it would have been true 50 years ago. Likewise, it's hard to draw the line between learned and instinctive behaviors, etc. For example, how can we call people's short attention spans unnatural? If we're the ones who conditioned ourselves to have short attention spans, then wasn't it a natural progression? Questions like that are liable to make your head spin. Still, it's fun food for thought to chew on for a while.
LUFU
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LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
7/12/2014 | 8:36:02 PM
Say No More
The Seinfeld scene is very telling with Puddy and Elaine on a flight and she couldn't bear that Puddy was just sitting there, not reading, not speaking, not doing anything. It drove Elaine up the wall and caused one of their numerable breakups.

It strikes me that the ability to do nothing is also culturally related. I learned from a Japanese businessman and from experience that Westerners and Japanese are on different wavelengths. In meetings, the Japanese may sit quietly and not say much while the Westerners can't keep themselves from talking. In negotiation situations, the non-Japanese couldn't bear the Japanese non-verbal silence and would greet the lengthy pauses by giving in more than necessary. In this case, whoever spoke up first was the loser.
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
7/12/2014 | 7:10:23 PM
Re: I will take the bet. How about an hour
we are not on betting site :) 
dogcat
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dogcat,
User Rank: Guru
7/12/2014 | 4:38:02 PM
I will take the bet. How about an hour
How much do you want to wager?
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