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Dr. Helen

The Politics of Sitting Alone

July 4th, 2014 - 5:42 am

Apparently, some people would rather hurt themselves than spend time alone, according to this study:

Washington (AFP) – Many people would rather inflict pain on themselves than spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to do but think, according to a US study out Thursday.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted 11 different experiments to see how people reacted to being asked to spend some time alone.

Just over 200 people participated in the experiments. Some were college students, others were volunteers who ranged in age from 18-77 and were recruited from a church and farmers’ market.

Some of the subjects would rather shock themselves than sit alone with their own thoughts:

They offered students in one of the studies a chance to rate various stimuli, from seeing attractive photographs to the feeling of being given an electric shock about as strong as one that might come from dragging one’s feet on a carpet.

After the participants felt the shock, which Westgate described as mild, some even said they would prefer to pay $5 rather than feel it again.

Then each subject went into a room for 15 minutes of thinking time alone. They were told they had the opportunity to shock themselves, if desired.

Two-thirds of the male subjects — 12 out of 18 — gave themselves at least one shock while they were alone.

Most of the men shocked themselves between one and four times. However, one “outlier” shocked himself 190 times.

A quarter of the women, six out of 24, decided to shock themselves, each between one and nine times.

There was speculation from the study results that people in today’s over-stimulated world need that stimulation and have a hard time sitting alone. A few thoughts: I wonder if the men simply shocked themselves for “shock value” — that is, rather than being afraid to be alone, they did it to entertain themselves by doing the rebellious thing to shock the researchers. Perhaps. Or perhaps they really are that afraid of being alone. The elderly were also willing to shock themselves. Perhaps we treat our elderly like such pariahs that they would rather feel something than nothing.

Perhaps it has as much to do with politics and our socialized view in a “progressive” society that it is better to be an extroverted sort who is a collectivist. Those who are independent-minded and don’t need others are seen as suspect. Probably because they are not dependent on the government and might be harder to control. I could go on, but I will stop here with my speculation. Maybe the people in the experiment just need to read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking to get some perspective.

Why do you think people in the study can’t sit alone?

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
I have a cousin who likes to travel with me, but she has what I call diarrhea of the mouth. While I can happily drive for 12 hours in complete silence, she feels compelled to share every single thought that comes into her brain. She even tells me in great detail about her stupid dreams! I kindly ask her to please keep her thoughts to herself and let me drive in peace, but it's like she is not capable of doing that. Now I am not an old curmudgeon, and I can carry my end of a conversation just fine. But I can't even turn on the radio in the hope that she will shut up, because she either sings along or if I turn on talk radio, she has a need to talk OVER the person on the radio. Yelling "SHUT UP!!!!!" only works for about five minutes before she is at it again. I have gotten to the point where I refuse to take her anywhere, which causes problems in the family because we live five miles away from each other, and everyone else is a 12 hour drive.

So who is really the problem here?
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fran, the older I get, the less I want the company of others - mostly because so many are idiots.

My nephews are Millennials. One of them has always been more introverted, more comfortable in his own skin, with his own thoughts. He's not weird, he's just not outgoing. He has a cellphone that only takes and makes phone calls, and it's usually turned off. He would rather email at his leisure. He holds down a job and supports himself, he just doesn't go in for all of the high-tech, 24/7 media stimulation that seems to be de rigeur these days. But even his brothers nag him that there is something wrong with him. They are tethered to their smart phones, and if they send a text, they expect an immediate response, or else they text back and start getting nasty. They are on Twitter and find themselves compelled to tweet every random thought they have - to the exclusion of sharing those thoughts with other people in the room, I might add. These are guys who would go out to dinner together and not speak to each other, but instead be texting and tweeting people who aren't there. These guys consider themselves the "normal" ones. Personally, I prefer the company of the loner who reads, hikes, kayaks, and genuinely thinks about life, than the ones who feel compelled to share every random thing that comes into their heads with a couple thousand strangers, then consider themselves "extroverts."
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
I disagree with the conclusion of this study. All it shows is what happens when you leave a guy alone with a "toy"
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (89)
All Comments   (89)
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Some of this may be people who are looking to be "edgy" in their use of shocks, but a bigger problem is the high number of people who are made DEEPLY uneasy by silence and lack of stimulation - in other words, extroverts at the extreme edge.

Our society is encouraging extroversion over introversion. Classrooms are so noisy that introverts cannot even think, let alone work productively. I'd love to see classes organized by extro/intro types, and let each work with the environment they handle best.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
As an introvert, i don't mind sitting alone, and daydreaming all day
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
no need to be a Buddhist, just learn how to take a nap
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Buddhists (who probably have spend more time studying on what makes people happy than any other believe system) believe that a person has achieved true enlightenment or happiness if that person can sit in a room with absolutely nothing to distract them i.e tv,books,cellphone,paintings ,company etc etc.Just sit there with their own thoughts and still be perfectly happy.

For us Westerners the thought of doing that fills us with horror,that is why solitary confinement works so well on us.For an accomplished (meditating) Buddhist solitary confinement is practically Christmas every day.

I ,who also tend to be on the solitary side ,have noticed over the years that many highly accomplished,competent people can handle almost anything except their own company. Again,the mere thought scares the heck out of them.They rather spend time with people they dislike than spend it alone. For them to be alone is to be lonely and to be lonely is to be miserable.

I like nothing more than to spend time with family and friends whose company I enjoy,but if there are not any around,being by myself is pretty good too. In order to be one's own best friend,is a valuable skill that can be learnt.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Also, from what I've read, people (and most tend to be men) with narcissistic personality disorder can't stand being alone with their thoughts because they don't have and don't want an inner life. Perhaps there's a correlation between societal narcissism and the dread of introspection.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
It would be interesting to see how many avoid introspection per se. I don't know how you'd measure that other than to ask the participants. I suspect many do not like introspection and seek to avoid it. To what extent, I wonder, has modern life provided people with an out when it comes to introspection. Maybe there's not much there to think about or ponder on to begin with. Maybe we don't much like thinking about anything.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you really wanted to test the torture vs solitude hypothesis, place them in a room with a 12 page doctrinaire feminist discourse. See if they read for more than long enough to identify it.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting, but a small sample size. It could just be that most of the males were extroverts and other high-stimulus types.

That said, spending 15 minutes alone is pretty easy. It is one reason I like traveling alone, having a sleeper compartment on the train to myself, my place in the country with no one within a mile or more. Granted it is easier to take if you can read or what not.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Many people have tinnitus. For me sitting alone means a constant hissing sound that never stops day or night.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find constructing analyses and arguments on current events, or planning personal activities sub-vocally or quietly vocally to myself, a very adequate time-filler and way of diverting my attention from my own tinnitus. No compulsion for entertainment from others.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Having a fan running or something that makes some noise can help cover that up, so long as the sound itself isn't so loud it won't fade into the background after a while and go unnoticed. Too loud and it will be more annoying than the tinnitus.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can see these test subjects shocking themselves out of curiosity just to learn the strength of the shock. That hardly accords to fear of being alone with one's thoughts; indeed, exhibiting such curiosity shows a lively interest in one's thoughts.

I suspect a cultural influence in the so-called results of this test. I've worked about half of my life in less-developed countries. In that time I've concluded that if you put someone from the US in a room that had some odds & ends & gizmos on the table, that person would look them over; examine them; try to ascertain some purpose. Folks from the less-developed nations - who did not grow up surrounded by technology and have never developed the curiosity about it - would likely sit there, waiting for further developments.

Yes, that is a very cursory & broad-brush conclusion. But so is the conclusion that shocking oneself displays a fear of being alone. If they're going to claim Science(TM) with their conclusions, then I will claim it for mine, too.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
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