People struggle to appreciate how engaging thinking can be, study finds
People consistently underestimate how much they would like to spend time alone with their own thoughts, with nothing to distract them, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.
Humans have a remarkable ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking. Our research suggests that individuals struggle to appreciate how engaging thought can be. This could explain why people prefer to deal with devices and other distractions, rather than taking a moment of reflection and imagination in everyday life..”
Aya Hatano, PhD, Study Lead Author, Kyoto University
The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In a series of six experiments with a total of 259 participants, the researchers compared people’s predictions of how happy they would be to sit and think with their actual experience of doing so. In the first experiment, they asked people to predict how much they would like to sit alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes, without being allowed to do anything distracting like reading, walking around or looking at a smartphone. Afterwards, participants commented on how much they enjoyed it.
The researchers found that people enjoyed spending time with their thoughts much more than they intended. This was found to be true in variants of the experiment in which participants sat in a bare conference room or in a small, dark tent area with no visual stimulation; variations in which the reflection period lasted three minutes or 20 minutes; and a variation in which researchers asked people to report their enjoyment halfway through the task rather than after it was completed. Either way, participants enjoyed thinking more than they had expected.
In another experiment, the 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 reading the news on the Internet. Again, the researchers found that people underestimated their enjoyment of thinking. The focus group expected to enjoy the task significantly less than the fact-checking group, but afterward both groups reported similar levels of enjoyment.
These findings are especially important in our modern age of information overload and constant access to distractions, according to study co-author Kou Murayama, PhD, of the University of Tübingen in Germany. “It is now extremely easy to ‘kill time’. On the bus on the way to work, you can check your phone rather than immerse yourself in your floating internal thought, as you predict the thought will be boring,” he said. -he declares. “However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage without relying on such stimulation.”
This missed opportunity comes at a cost, as previous studies have shown that spending time letting your mind wander has certain benefits, researchers say. It can help people solve problems, improve their creativity, and even find meaning in life. “By actively avoiding thoughtful activities, people can miss out on 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, participants’ level of enjoyment was around 3 to 4 on a 7-point scale. Future research should look at which types of thinking are more enjoyable and motivating, according to Murayama. “Not all thoughts are inherently rewarding, and in fact some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking,” he said.
Future research should also explore why people underestimate how much they will like to think, the researchers say. The findings also need to be replicated in more diverse populations than the current study, in which all participants were students in Japan or the UK.
American Psychological Association
Hatano, A. et al. (2022) Thinking about thinking: People underestimate how enjoyable and engaging waiting is. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi.org/10.1037/xge0001255.supp