Shocking Truth: People Don't Like to Be Left Alone with Their Thoughts


A fascinating new study published in Science finds that people really, really don't like to be left alone with their own thoughts, not even for six minutes. The report, called, "Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind," by Timothy D. Wilson, David A. Reinhard, Erin C. Westgate, Daniel T. Gilbert, Nicole Ellerbeck, Cheryl Hahn, Casey L. Brown, and Adi Shaked, found:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Let me repeat: "Many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves" rather than listen to what's going on in their own heads. And you wonder why it's so awkward when presenters, with the best of intentions, pause for a minute and ask people to think about what they just learned—instead, they're wishing for a little jolt to preoccupy them so they can avoid doing just that!

Related: The Brain Science Behind Meeting Breaks

And yet contemplative time is essential for adult learning to take place, as Velvet Chainsaw Consulting's adult ed expert Jeff Hurt has pointed out repeatedly, most recently in this post on the need to create times and places for "joyful silence" at meetings. As he says,

Reflection takes us beyond the words to a place of rest, openness and receptivity. It can also provide opportunity for unexpected insight.

With silence, solitude and contemplation, we can rest from all the human striving and touch a deeper truth that runs underneath everything else. Then we can reengage with the conference experience in a unique way.

He also offers a few suggestion on how to create those times and spaces, which I recommend you check out. But I think the idea of giving people something physical to do while reflecting—be it writing, or walking a maze, or playing with table toys—may be essential, given our apparent reluctance to just mull on our own. I find knitting, gardening, yoga, and fishing to be great ways to do something without really engaging the mind too much (at least, the way I do the above! More serious enthusiasts probably find other ways to make it happen). Just a minimal amount of physical effort seems to help set our minds free to wander.

How can you help facilitate cogitation among a species whose minds constantly need to engage with the world, in a meeting space full of happy distractions?

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Jul 4, 2014

Awesome headline, Sue!

on Jul 4, 2014

Sue, I think the interpretation of this research has been somewhat distorted by the media. But to your point, there's a big difference between being told to sit in an empty room with no direction (as done in the study), compared to being asked to reflect on an issue or come up with an opinion during a session.

I agree that many people are uncomfortable with silence (see for a list of the many, often-confused, roles that silence can play). When used carefully, however, it can be a powerful component of useful work in meetings.

I like your idea of providing people an option to do something physical while they're reflecting (I sometimes fiddle with convenient nearby stuff while thinking). But if it's too appealing, you might divert attention from the task at hand.

on Jul 7, 2014

That's why Joan Eisenstodt always has toys available during her sessions. Carey

on Jul 7, 2014

Thanks for the clarification, Adrian, and the link to the post on different types and roles of silence at meetings. Reflection needs to be directed, I think, to be useful in a session setting, though I also love the idea of having areas where people can be alone with their thoughts (other than their rooms) or have quiet conversations with a few others available.

Carey, I love Joan's toys! Though I have been known to get a little too into playing with some of them and lose the gist of the conversation, to Adrian's point about not making the stuff too appealing. It's hard to know though, when what might be just distracting enough for one person may be too distracting for another. Then again, most of us know when it's time to put the toy down!

on Jul 8, 2014

If only we could all learn meditative techniques (which I've learned through practicing yoga). Being centered and using mindfulness techniques are the best medicine for the brain.

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