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The Shocking Truth

A UVA study finds people would rather be shocked than be alone with their thoughts

UVA psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson

Greta Garbo once famously quipped, “I want to be alone,” but recent studies by UVA psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson indicate the reclusive actress may have regretted that wish.

Wilson conducted a series of 11 studies—results of which were published last year in the journal Science—that found people of all ages and both genders do not enjoy being alone.

At all.

Wilson and colleagues at Harvard asked participants to spend anywhere from six to 15 minutes alone in a comfortable room that contained no external stimuli. The idea was to provide a “thinking period” in which participants could entertain themselves solely with whatever flitted through their minds. However, they were not entertained. In fact, many said they could not concentrate under such seemingly benign conditions and found the experience unpleasant.

How unpleasant? Eighteen men were put in the room with a device that would give them a small electrical shock if they pressed a button. Twelve of them administered the electric shocks to themselves rather than continue to sit alone with their thoughts during their session. One participant pushed the “shock” button 190 times.

Wilson says he found the results surprising at first. He reasoned that, with the popularizing of yoga and meditation, people would be inclined to “enjoy some down time.”

“The idea with meditation is to quiet the mind, not to banish thoughts,” he says. “But meditation is hard, and takes training to do properly. It doesn’t come naturally.”

After his study was published, Wilson said he received numerous emails “from older people telling me the study was wrong because they were sitting alone by the fireplace enjoying their thoughts right then.”

Wilson said those emails have given him new avenues of research to pursue.

“I remain convinced, though I don’t yet have the evidence, that the mind may be freed up if it’s mildly engaged in the world, such as going for a walk or looking out a window,” he says. “The mind is built for social interaction.”