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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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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:32:21 PM
Re: Meditation
@jastro- I'll admit that one of the reasons I hate yoga classes is the number of them that make me sit quietly in a room full of people. I have no problem  sitting quietly alone. But I keep wondering to myself why I've decided to leave my house to exercise, and now I'm sitting around with a bunch of strangers doing nothing.

So clearly me and mediation don't get along. Or at least me and social norms don't. So I get this to some degree. I'm just said people can't let it go when they're home.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:27:38 PM
Re: Meditation
@willjordan- I think that's great. I hear many people who practice meditation say that it is different than sitting and thinking. I personally can't tell the difference. Do you see one, and do you think it matters for this? Should we teach everyone how to meditate?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:26:03 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@SaneIT- I assume they drink themselves into a stupor and shoot the lights out like Elvis used to do. :)

No, i have no idea. I have no problem either. It is so tempting to make fun of these people until you realize it is MOST people.
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 10:09:07 AM
Interesting
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. Are you sure that is why they did it? Did you ask them? If so do you really believe them? Perhaps the real reason was they wondered if the button would really administer the shock.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 10:02:43 AM
Re: Meditation
>> 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?"

Yep. No problem. If one is trained to meditate, then those 15 minutes are a snap. I know folks who can sit all day in silent meditation. I'm not religious, or follow any religion. The issue is getting myself to meditate! I'd rather watch TV. But, since you gave me 15 lovely minutes, I took them for silent meditation. Five years ago it would not have been as easy. But, you can change that with instruction and practice.

>> 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.

We are all over stimulated by life, and most of us have not been taught how do dial it down through meditation or silent prayer, sadly.

Happy Geekend, @dave
willjordan
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willjordan,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 9:42:45 AM
Meditation
I don't have any trouble with 15 to 30 minutes of meditation, which some people would consider doing nothing. But then, my attention span can include attention to my thoughts and my heartbeat and breathing.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 8:06:32 AM
Pain or nothing
All I can say is wow.  I know that attention spans have been shrinking for some time but it's hard to imagine not being able to be still for 15 minutes and enjoy it.  How do these people sleep at night?  How do they work through complex problems?  Do they daydream?  Down time is one of my most prized opportunities.  I love a few minutes alone in my head to work things out so this is all very interesting to me.  I can't imagine being so bored that shocking myself sounds like a better alternative.
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