Geekend: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself

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

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

July 11, 2014

6 Min Read

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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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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