We have all experienced those unpleasant thoughts that pop up into your brain when you have nothing better to do. Whether we’re taking a shower, falling asleep, or simply daydreaming in class, our mind always seems to wander and eventually settle on things we’d rather not dwell on. For the most part these thoughts may be only mildly upsetting, such as an embarrassing memory of child hood (cue flashbacks to 13 year old me), but every now and then some deeply disturbing musings creep into the edges of our consciousness, leaving us repeating the mantra “don’t think about it”.
This strategy of avoiding unpleasant thoughts is called experiential avoidance and is practiced by nearly everyone even though it can result in highly negative effects. Psychologists believe that experiential avoidance is perpetuated due to negative reinforcement – short-term relief from discomfort that increases the likelihood persistence of the behaviour. Everyone is guilty of experiential avoidance, yet are we also guilty of avoiding thought altogether just in case something uncomfortable springs to mind?
Research shows that people would much rather prefer a short jolt of pain than to be left alone with their thoughts for a few minutes. Timothy Wilson, of the University of Virginia, conducted 11 experiments using 409 college students. The participants were left alone with their thoughts in a bare room for 6 to 15 minutes, depending on the condition, with absolutely no distractions.
50% of the participants reported on a 9-point scale that the experience was highly unenjoyable, despite the fact that many said prior to the experiment that daydreaming generally left them feeling happy.
In another condition of the experiment, researchers kicked things up a notch by giving the students the option to give themselves a mild electric shock – described as similar to a shock from static – during the 6 to 15 minute period. 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose to shock themselves little static electricity shock rather than complete the entire thinking period uninterrupted. These findings are made even more shocking when taking into consideration the fact that, when given a sample beforehand, most of the participants said they’d pay $5 not to be zapped again. One man – an outlier – found thinking so unpleasant that instead he opted for a shock 190 times.
These findings suggest that we find our own thoughts so excruciating that we would do almost anything to distract ourselves, even if that things is detrimental to ourselves. Are our thoughts really that bad? Or, in this age of instant entertainment and distractions by the handful, are we just unequipped to deal with our own thoughts for too long?
Due to the limited age range of the sample, it could be suggested that the youth are just incapable of being left to do nothing but think. As we are constantly being stimulated it’s possible that, unlike the older generation, we are out of practice with dealing with our own minds. However, Wilson did complete another experiment with participants aged 18-77 and they also reported feeling uncomfortable being left alone with their thoughts. Therefore, even though the electric shock condition was only done on students, the findings from the other conditions suggests that these results would occur regardless of age range.
Wilson and his fellow researchers say that “when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings” supporting the idea that we will exercise experiential avoidance just in case we start thinking about something that displeases us. Not only does this suggest that we are incapable of controlling our thought processes, but also that we may be thinking some quite worrying things, if we would go so far as to administer pain in order to distract ourselves.
Would you be able to stand 15 minutes without entertainment? Or would you, like these students, choose the pain as a source of stimuli?