Huffpost Science

People Hate Being Bored So Much, They'll Do Almost Anything To Avoid It (Even Hurt Themselves)

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by Dornveek Markkstyrn via Getty Images

“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” ― Thomas Edison

It's vacation season. What could be better than sipping an ice-cold margarita and being alone with your own thoughts?

As it turns out, just about anything. According to new research from psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard, people would rather do something -- even engage in a little masochistic distraction -- than sit and do nothing.

"What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," the psychologists wrote in a paper describing the research.

The paper is scheduled to be published July 4 in the journal Science.

The researchers conducted a series of studies involving nearly 300 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 77. Subjects were asked to sit alone in a room for six to 15 minutes, away from cell phones and other distractions, and "entertain themselves with their thoughts." Afterwards, they were asked what they thought about the experience.

How did people react? On average, most subjects said they didn't enjoy having nothing to do. And this effect was found across all ages.

"That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," study author Dr. Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, said in a written statement.

Just how eager were people to avoid alone time? To find out, the researchers asked 42 men and women to entertain themselves for 15 minutes -- and gave them the opportunity to shock themselves during that time.

Somewhat surprisingly, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women decided to do it.

What could possibly explain this behavior?

"Our idea is that the human mind evolved to engage with the world -- to be vigilant for dangers as well as seek out opportunities," study co-author David Reinhard, a doctoral student in psychology at U.Va., told The Huffington Post in an email. "It seems that the mind may want to engage with the external world, even if that engagement involves pain."

He added that while our increasing reliance on technology probably doesn't cause our boredom, it might exacerbate the effect.

"We may seek out technology because entertaining ourselves with only our thoughts is difficult and technology is an easily available alternative," Reinhard said in the email. "But, because we so often seek out external stimulation from technology we may then lose practice with entertaining ourselves with our thoughts and that in turn makes it more difficult and less enjoyable."

In future studies, the researchers hope to explore whether training people to entertain themselves with their thoughts might serve as a coping mechanism -- and whether it may boost long-term happiness and productivity.

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