The experiment was simple. All the participants had to do was enter an empty room, sit down, and think for six to 15 minutes. But without a cellphone, a book, or a television screen to stare at, the assignment quickly became too much to handle. In fact, even when individuals were given time to "prepare" for being alone — meaning that they were able to plan what they would think about during their moments of solitude — the participants still "found it hard," Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. "People didn’t like it much."
they could shock themselves as often as they liked
So the researchers decided to give each participant the option of doing something else, besides just thinking. But what they came up with wasn’t exactly pleasant because, instead of just sitting there, participants were now also allowed to shock themselves as many times as they liked with a device containing a 9 volt battery. Still, for many, that option seemed like a better deal.
Most of the people who decided to shock themselves did so seven times. These results baffled the researchers. "I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice," Wilson, told The Washington Post in reference to his initial position during the conception of the study, published yesterday in Science. One man even gave himself 190 electric shocks over a period of 15 minutes, Wilson told The Atlantic, but his data points weren’t included in the final analysis. "I’m still just puzzled by that."
One guy used the device 190 times
Still, the fact that they chose to shock themselves at all, on their own, was unexpected. And this had nothing to do with curiosity about what the shocks would feel like, because the researchers made sure that each individual received a shock before the beginning of the session.
Yet, people voluntarily shocking themselves repeatedly wasn’t the only surprise. According to the researchers, men showed a marked preference for the negative stimulation. Out of 24 women, only six decided to shock themselves, but 12 out of the 18 male participants figured electric shocks were worthwhile. This, the researchers hypothesize, might have to do with the fact that men appear to be more willing to take risks for the sake of an intense and complex experiences than women.
The results of this study are tentative, however, and the sample sizes — a total of 11 experiments that included between 40 and 100 university students each — were fairly small, so researchers will need to repeat them. But for now, it would appear that humans, especially men, seem to prefer receiving negative, even painful stimulation, to suffering through the bouts of obligatory "mind-wandering" — which you could also call "boredom," depending on how you want to look at it.