Dr. Helen

The Politics of Sitting Alone

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?