How much do most people hate boredom? Enough to prefer feeling an uncomfortable electric shock to being left on their own with their own thoughts, a study has found.
In experiments at the University of Virginia, researchers found that participants told to do nothing more than sit still and think without external distractions said they found the experience unpleasant to the point of being willing to self-administer a mild electric shock as an antidote to the boredom they felt.
The experimental subjects were told to sit by themselves in a quiet room for a period of time ranging from 5 to 15 minutes, without anything to distract or occupy them such as a cellphone, book or television, and simply be alone with their own thoughts.
Having nothing to do wasn't enjoyable, most of them reported to researchers.
In fact, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women taking part chose to shock themselves, even though they had experienced the shock before the experiment began and so were familiar with its discomfort, the researchers reported in the journal Science.
In fact, most participants told the researchers they would pay to avoid such a shock -- but apparently changing their minds after reporting they had a hard time concentrating and finding their minds wandering.
And the age of the participants in the experiments -- ranging from 18 to 77 -- made little difference in the responses, they say.
"That was surprising -- that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," UV psychologist and study author Dr. Timothy Wilson said.
Finding it difficult to just be at rest without external mental stimulation could be something rooted in evolution, the researchers suggest.
"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 said. "It seems that the mind may want to engage with the external world, even if that engagement involves pain."
Burgeoning technologies including smartphones and the Internet that provide such engagement and the ability to avoid the awkwardness of being alone with our thoughts may be depriving people of opportunities to learn to be comfortable with their own thoughts and daydreams, they researchers suggest.
An increasing dependence of technology may not be causing our boredom, they say, but it might be making it harder to endure.
"It's hard to say what is causing what," says Reinhard, "but it's possible that our obsession with technology could be a consequence and a symptom."