One of my business partners, Mason, studied philosophy in college. He explains that choice by saying, “I wanted to enjoy my thought life.” The first time I heard it I don’t think I grasped the gravity of what he was saying.
I was recently reminded of that story when I ran across an article about people involved in an experiment where subjects’ responsibility was to sit and think in a quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Amazingly, a large number of people, after trying their hand at silent thought, chose to to endure endure electric shock as opposed to more solitude. Fascinating. We’ve allowed ourselves to escape from our own heads.
Here’s an excerpt from the article1:
In some experiments, college volunteers were asked to sit alone in a bare laboratory room and spend six to 15 minutes doing nothing but thinking or daydreaming. They were not allowed to have a cellphone, music player, reading material or writing implements and were asked to remain in their seats and stay awake. Most reported they did not enjoy the task and found it hard to concentrate.
Researchers then had adult and college student volunteers do the same thing in their homes, and got the same results. In addition, a third of volunteers cheated by doing things like using a cellphone or listening to music.
The researchers did an experiment to see if the student volunteers would even do an unpleasant task rather than just sit and think. They gave them a mild shock of the intensity of static electricity.
Volunteers were asked whether, if given $5, they would spend some of it to avoid getting shocked again. The ones who said they would be willing to pay to avoid another shock were asked to sit alone and think for 15 minutes but were given the option of giving themselves that same shock by simply pushing a button.
Many did no, especially men: Two-thirds (12 of 18) administered at least one shock. One did it 190 times. A quarter of the women (six of 24) gave themselves at least one shock.
1. You can read the full article about solitude and electric shock on Reuters.com.