Most men would rather shock themselves than daydream, study says

Research shows most men don't like to let their minds wander. They need to be doing something -- even something horrible.

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Louis CK demonstrating sitting alone. Team Coco screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I've always worried that I'm in the minority. About everything. Even in a relationship.

So there's no relief at all in discovering that I might be right.

You see, I often stare out into space, allowing my mind to meander, begging space to deliver a random and beautiful surprise. Research from the University of Virginia and Harvard tells me, however, that I am not included in the majority of men.

The study, to be published Friday in the journal Science, offers a painful view of humankind.

Earthlings aren't fond of sitting alone, with their mere thoughts for company. Doing anything seems preferable to doing nothing. Or, at least, what these subjects viewed as nothing.

University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson insisted that in his team's experiments, these people were merely left alone with their thoughts for between 6 and 15 minutes. This is about the time you wait for a bus, a train, or your absent-minded lover to turn up for dinner.

The guinea pigs didn't like the alone thing at all. The researchers repeated the experiment allowing people to be alone in their homes. It didn't help. They didn't just use college students in their research, but people aged between 18 and 77.

"We found that about a third admitted that they had 'cheated' at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair. And they didn't enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab," Wilson said.

The researchers tried a whole series of experiments, but the results seemed remarkably consistent. So they took it to an extreme. Would humans rather do something unpleasant to themselves, rather than merely be alone with their inner musings?

The results might stun. One-quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men preferred to administer an electric shock to themselves, rather than just sit there.

The shocks weren't of killer voltage. However, Wilson and his team said: "What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

As to why men were more prone to this apparently self-destructive behavior, Wilson hypothesized that men were wired to enjoying "sensations."

The core of it, though, may be that people aren't able to switch off when asked to. Their brains are primed to action, rather than contemplation. We prefer to think about the consequences later. Especially, perhaps, men.

One man who has given voice to this phenomenon is Louis CK.

Last year, he told Conan O'Brien that cell phones had taken away people's ability "to just sit there." He described that ability as "being a person."

To his mind, texting and driving is an example of people willing to risk their lives and those of others, simply not to feel alone.

Louis believes you should just give in to the sadness of being alone. From the beauty of that sadness, he said, some happy feelings will emerge.

It seems, though, that he's in the minority too.

 

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