According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, people constantly underestimate how much they enjoy spending time alone with their thoughts, without anything to distract them.
“Humans have an amazing ability to delve into their own thinking,” said lead study author Aya Hatana, Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan. “Our research suggests that people struggle to appreciate how engaging thinking can be. This may explain why people prefer to engage with devices and other distractions over taking a moment for reflection and imagination in their daily lives.”
The study was published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In a series of six experiments with a total of 259 participants, researchers compared people’s predictions about how much they would enjoy just sitting and thinking with their actual experience of it. In the first experiment, they asked people to predict how much they would enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes without being allowed to do anything distracting, such as reading, walking, or looking at a smartphone. Afterwards, the participants talked about how much they liked it.
Researchers have found that people enjoy spending time with their thoughts much more than they expected. This referred to variations of the experiment in which participants sat in a bare conference room or in a small dark tent with no visual stimulation; options in which the thinking period lasted from three minutes to 20 minutes; and one variant in which the researchers asked people to report their satisfaction in the middle of the task rather than after it was completed. In each case, the participants got more out of the reflections than they expected.
In another experiment, researchers compared one group of participants’ predictions about how much they would enjoy thinking with another group’s predictions about how much they would enjoy watching news online. Again, the researchers found that people underestimated their enjoyment of thinking. The thinking group expected to enjoy the task significantly less than the news checking group, but both groups reported similar levels of enjoyment afterward.
These results are especially important in our modern age of information overload and constant access to distractions, according to study co-author Kou Murayama, Ph.D., of the University of Tübingen in Germany. “Now it’s extremely easy to ‘kill time.’ On the bus to work, you might check your phone instead of immersing yourself in your inner freethinker because you’re predicting that thinking will be boring,” he said. “However, if that prediction isn’t accurate, you’re missing out on engaging yourself positively , without counting on such stimulation.”
This missed opportunity comes at a price, because previous studies have shown that time that allows the mind to wander has some benefits, according to researchers. It can help people solve problems, increase their creativity, and even help them find meaning in life. “By actively avoiding thinking, people can lose these important benefits,” Murayama said.
Importantly, participants did not rate thinking as an extremely enjoyable task, but simply as more enjoyable than they thought, according to Murayama. On average, the satisfaction level of the participants ranged from 3 to 4 points on a 7-point scale. Future research should delve into what types of thinking are most pleasurable and motivating, according to Murayama. “Not all thinking is inherently beneficial, and in fact some people are prone to a vicious cycle of negative thinking,” he said.
Future research should also examine the reasons why people underestimate how much they like to think, according to the researchers. The results also need to be replicated in more diverse populations than the current study, in which all participants were college students in Japan or the UK