Would you rather shock yourself than just sit there?

by on July 5, 2014 at 3:01 am in Education, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

People, and especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain. In a study published in Science  Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company.

“We went into this thinking that mind wandering wouldn’t be that hard,” said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “People usually think of mind wandering as being a bad thing, because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. But we wanted to see what happens when mind wandering is the goal.”

Wilson didn’t think his subjects would struggle with the task. “We have this big brain full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies. But despite that, we kept finding that people didn’t like it much and found it hard.”

The full story is here.  Among other issues, I believe this has implications for how Principles of Economics should be taught.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

1 Nicholas Marsh July 5, 2014 at 3:16 am

Wouldn’t pressing the shock button be best understood as an act if curiosity? I’d do it just to see what the shock was like. If so why isn’t curiosity an act of thinking?

And the people who shocked themselves multiple times were probably scientists: http://xkcd.com/242/

2 Gordon Mohr (@gojomo) July 5, 2014 at 3:40 am

Indeed! One might never get another convenient chance to tinker with such a unique tool: causing temporary pain but clearly no risk of permanent harm (or it wouldn’t be left for self-administration). With more distance from the initial shock, one would start to wonder: was it as bad as I first thought? Could I get used to it?

Subjects might also suspect, based on prior experience or even the evolutionary environment, that there’s a reward for being better able to endure the shocks – even if not in this experiment, in life beyond. “No pain, no gain”, after all… and it seems the experiment even primed the subjects to put a dollar value on avoiding the pain. So perhaps some even thought, “I said I’d pay $5 to avoid the shock; maybe I’ll *get* $5 for each self-administration?”

Very interesting study… but not sure the “pain preferred to solitude” interpretation is correct. Novelty and self-testing may be bigger motivators once subjects have learned the pain is fleeting.

3 Michael G. Heller July 5, 2014 at 4:00 am

I think you’re wrong. I would hope most people experience the ‘fun’ electric shock experience before they reach adulthood. If they haven’t then I’m concerned about kids being badly brought up. Perhaps electric shock games should be mandatory at school or kindergarten, once at least. But even if the poor deprived souls haven’t experienced electric shock, I find it bizarre that they would opt for the easily known, often described, and most certain to be unpleasant choice. I’m classified as a social scientist and I’m shocked that anyone would turn down any opportunity to daydream. If daydreaming is no longer the most desirable activity on earth what’s the world coming to? In conclusion, there’s a shocking socio-psychological message here. Nietzsche would have a field day pulling this one apart.

4 andrew' July 5, 2014 at 5:34 am

This is how lot of psychopaths describe themselves and their crimes. They lack fear of risks, can’t stand being bored and are curious (partly because they can’t predict their future emotions).

5 Pshrnk July 5, 2014 at 8:08 am

1/4 of women and 2/3 of men. Same fundamental reason women make better long term investors in the market.

6 XVO July 5, 2014 at 8:58 am

But poor entrepreneurs and salesmen?

7 Jamie_NYC July 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

Also, the alternative is being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’. But men are, on average, more introverted than women, so it should be easier for them to bear this. This results is suspect – did they control for different pain thresholds in men and women?

8 carlospln July 5, 2014 at 3:21 am

‘..I believe this has implications for how Principles of Economics should be taught.” (snip)

So that you can play the role of Teacher (T), administering voltage to the Learner (L) ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment


9 Jeff July 5, 2014 at 4:52 am

The movie “Ghostbusters” covered this quite well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fn7-JZq0Yxs#t=31

10 Yancey Ward July 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Yep, shock collars with 9-volt batteries come packaged with Modern Principles of Economics. When you buy Modern Principles: Macroeconomics, the collars are plugged into the wall outlet.

11 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:32 am

Very good. How are they activated? Bluetooth or WiFi? Or do they just activate themselves if they don’t receive the correct codes on a periodic basis?

12 andrew' July 5, 2014 at 3:30 am

I just had basically this thought and wondered how it related to the evolution if the workforce from go-getting to bureaucratic risk-aversion.

13 So Much for Subtlety July 5, 2014 at 4:35 am

In a study published in Science Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company.

That seems odd. Do they mean Maury wasn’t on?

14 Erik Gahner Larsen July 5, 2014 at 4:48 am
15 ummm July 5, 2014 at 5:10 am

maybe you can learn economics better with shock therapy

16 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:34 am

You can learn everything better with electrical motivation.

17 dearieme July 5, 2014 at 5:25 am

“to sit and do nothing but think”: I’m not sure I’ve ever done that. I always expect to have paper and pencil so that I can scribble and sketch. Doubtless I interrupt my pencil work by periods of pondering, but since I’m concentrating on my thoughts, not on me, I have little idea how long those periods last.

18 Yancey Ward July 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm

You probably stab yourself with the pencil without realizing it.

19 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:36 am

Or smoke a cigarette.

20 msnthrop July 5, 2014 at 6:24 am

I wonder if they asked their subjects what they’re political ideology might be…

21 gwern July 5, 2014 at 11:08 am

If you look at the populations the paper (https://www.dropbox.com/s/m2h1qi3rmvj8t13/2014-wilson.pdf) describes sampling from, it looks like they got a fair mix of conservatives and liberals.

22 Komori July 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm

But, oddly enough, looks like they didn’t even consider introversion/extroversion.

23 Komori July 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm

To expand, I doubt they included any writers in their sample. Sitting (or lying) around with no distractions is when I get my best foundational (world building, plotting, scene planning) work in.

“One can never be alone enough when one writes — there can never be enough silence around when one writes — even night is not night enough.” – Franz Kafka

Won’t be true of everyone, of course, but they obviously didn’t look very deeply into this.

24 Bill July 5, 2014 at 7:15 am

Oh, bored MR readers, just sitting their in your chair,

I am willing to help you, and lift you from the boredom of this post,

With my new 12 Volt battery and jumper cables,

Just $49.95, Shipping and Handling Fees Not Included.

25 Dan Weber July 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Normally this costs $300 per session.

26 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:41 am

Only at the lowest level. A Class V auditor at Flag is >$1000/hr.

27 Careless July 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm

What on Earth are you planning to do with a 12 volt battery?

28 dan in philly July 5, 2014 at 7:21 am

Hedonism is the sin of the modern age. People today seek out and value experience over all other things, and have not developed their facility to reflect.
I strongly suspect people from another time and culture, let’s say aesthetic hermits from late antiquity, would be quite capable and willing to sit for hours alone with their thoughts.

29 Horhe July 5, 2014 at 9:53 am

“Hedonism is the sin of the modern age” I chuckle when I read something like this. I imagine the Oracle in Delphi telling Aristippus of Cyrene that he and his followers are all damn posers, and will be for thousands of years, until the first season of the Real Housewives of X finally broadcasts. That sparked real hedonism. Because daydreaming and reflecting on things is not pleasurable, it’s the burden of serious men pondering serious things seriously. All those ancient hedonists with who had their sex slaves and were driven around on the back of six strong Nubians were failures, failures I say 😛 I disagree with this myopic nostalgia for a virtuous past that never existed, except in very specific cases that one could argue for today, as well. Also, aesthetic hermits from late antiquity were in short supply. Maybe you were trying for medieval monks who, at one time, I believe numbered a third of all men in Europe (no source for that, it’s just something I read that stuck with me).

30 CD July 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm

You mean “ascetic,” unless perhaps you’re thinking about the much-painted St.Jerome.

Then as now, extended meditation was a skill that had to be learned.

31 Mitch Berkson July 5, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Or perhaps “aseptic”. Those could sit for years and still be good.

32 Tarrou July 5, 2014 at 7:32 am

I can’t comment on the validity of the research, but it is my experience in a few fields that not very many people can just sit still. This is quite apparent in hunting, where one might sit motionless, watching and listening, for four to ten hours. Most people can’t or won’t do it. But it can be learned.

33 Yancey Ward July 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I was thinking about hunting, too, while reading this blog entry.

34 chuck martel July 5, 2014 at 11:21 pm

Is sitting motionless and silent waiting for an animal to walk by so you can kill it really “hunting”?

35 Yancey Ward July 6, 2014 at 11:42 am

It is always better to let the animal do the hard stuff.

36 Turkey Vulture July 5, 2014 at 9:17 am

I would want to see how the shock felt. It’s like coming upon an electric fence as a kid.

37 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:53 am

When I was about 11, I wound a shock coil around a steel bolt and took it to school. I shocked lots of kids, and many kept coming back for more. And bringing their friends.

I now know this is actually somewhat dangerous, because it can trigger a cardiac fibrillation event. Rather than an electrode in each hand, it’s much safer to have two electrodes in the same hand. Also, a high-frequency burst is much safer than a single pulse. I have two Oudin coils, should I need to apply this knowledge again.

38 Turkey Vulture July 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I remember sticking your tongue against both termimals of a 9V battery being a thing for a short while in primary or middle school.

39 Turkey Vulture July 5, 2014 at 9:22 am

Skimming the article, the shock-self issue seems like an idiotic distraction from what they were supposedly studying.

40 A Definite Beta Guy July 5, 2014 at 10:54 am

And while only 6 of the 24 women shocked themselves, 12 of the 18 men did so.

:/ I will say “interesting observation” and nothing more at the present time.

41 Mark Thorson July 6, 2014 at 12:55 am

They should have asked “Would you pay for it?”

42 Timothy July 5, 2014 at 11:03 am

It’s interesting. I kinda think I would view it as an opportunity to work on things or even meditate on things but I am … well pyschologically a little different obviously in a probably genetic way … e.g. I also have genetic health problems. I have poor “visual thinking” in some ways I think … But I can be alone with my thoughts. It is perhaps one of those things where it is not to a man’s advantage he is more likely by biology or culture to take the shock, what does that gain you … some false peace of mind?

One must always be wary of such studies though … limited numbers and odd setups and all.

43 Timothy July 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

On slightly further thought… all this “digital distraction” nonsense like at the end… Do I have to be some tech wunderkind to realize there are various options for silencing limiting or consolidating such interactions as needed? Like the things have mute mode for Christ’s sake.

44 Bill July 5, 2014 at 11:11 am

Give ’em some respect! They were just trying to extend Pascal’s idea: all of mankind’s trouble stem from an inability to sit alone in a room.

45 Bill July 5, 2014 at 11:17 am

It may help to remember that these were college students

46 gregorsam July 5, 2014 at 11:32 am

Even a ten year old boy quickly figures out how to entertain himself when he is alone.

What kind of men were these?

47 Adam J Calhoun (neuroecology) July 5, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Tom Stafford over at Mind Hacks has a good explanation of what the study really says http://mindhacks.com/2014/07/04/do-we-really-hate-thinking-so-much-wed-electrocute-ourselves-rather-than-do-it/

48 dwb July 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Or, more likely, people who sign up for these studies are gluttons for punishment.

49 The Original D July 5, 2014 at 3:29 pm

I go through periods where I like to just lay down and zone out. Sometimes good ideas come from it, but I don’t do it with any expectation. The process itself is the reward.

50 revver July 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm

…And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

51 Willitts July 6, 2014 at 2:01 am

I would define mental illness as a condition where thinking to oneself IS painful.

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