Alone with their watts: Research delivers a shock

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How many times have you found yourself saying, “If only I could have five minutes of peace to just THINK!”?

Think again.

It turns out that people actually given some time to be alone with their thoughts — and no phones, screens, music, paper or other distractions — find the experience surprisingly unpleasant.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, probably because he was French. Still, if you’ve ever been on a bus with a bachelorette party, that sounds about right.

A new study suggests that Sartre didn’t realize many of us carry around in our own heads a vast wasteland to rival cable television. With all these channels — memory, fantasy, problem-solving, meditation — there’s nothing good on.

Psychology researchers at the University of Virginia conducted a study in which they asked volunteers to come on down to the lab and sit alone in an empty room for 10 to 20 minutes. Sounds pretty relaxing, right? Don’t get too relaxed: You can’t fall asleep.

Or get out of the chair. So no yoga, dancing, pushups or running in circles going “brrrrrrm, brrrrrrm!”

You also swear off your pens, phone, iPad, watch, mp3 player, toenail clippers — anything with which you could entertain yourself.

Just you. In peace and silence. At long last, time to sit and have a good, thorough think. Maybe work out your plan for world domination (how many henchmen will you ideally need?), ponder the perfect crime, or plan what you and your siblings should do for Mom and Dad’s 40th wedding anniversary.

Except that’s not what people did. This is where it gets a little kinky.

The researchers, before leaving the room, showed the subjects a button. When pressed, the button delivered to the subject a mild, harmless but painful electric shock.

(Can I just ask here, what is it with psych researchers and electric shocks? You can’t all be Stanley Milgram, you sadistic freaks.)

Each test subject was directed to press the button, just to see what the shock felt like. When the researchers asked, “Is that unpleasant?” the subjects agreed it was. When the researchers asked, “Would you pay $5 to not get that shock again?” the subjects said you betcha.

To recap, this is the scenario: Researchers leave you alone in a room for up to 20 minutes. You can’t read, listen to music, play with your phone. You have to sit in a chair, and you can’t fall asleep. Within reach is a button; if you press it, it gives you an electric shock so painful you would pay not to receive it (but if you simply don’t press the button, you avoid it free of charge).

Of course, more than half of the subjects ultimately confessed to cheating. They couldn’t resist the lure of their phones. And who knows how many more didn’t own up to it.

But something weirder happened: 25 percent of the women tested chose to shock themselves.

And, preferring painful electric shock to sitting peacefully with their thoughts, almost 70 percent of the men.

The researchers couldn’t believe it. But their subjects were fidgety college kids, so they tried again with subjects well into adulthood from outside the student population – and got a very similar result.

What’s going on? Have we always been like this, or is this new? An unwillingness to be still for a few minutes and think things over, or daydream, or ask ourselves where it all went wrong seems a bit childish, or cowardly, or lazy. We grumble about our hectic lives that don’t leave us time to think … but that’s actually the last thing we want.

Maybe we’re just hardwired for interaction with the world and each other. The one thing that seems obvious is that, whatever you’ve been doing wrong in your life, you’re probably not overthinking it.

Now there’s a shock.

Samantha Bennett, freelance writer:

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