Would You Shock Yourself Or Be Alone With Your Thoughts?

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Men Would Rather Shock Themselves Than Be Alone With Their Thoughts. Is It Any Wonder We’re Struggling With Shelter-In-Place?
By Dr. John Schinnerer

“My mind is a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.”
Anne Lamott

Two-thirds of men will shock themselves rather than be alone with their thoughts. Is it any wonder domestic violence has increased 20% during the coronavirus lockdown. Anger, anxiety and depression are bubbling, seething and growing as the shelter-in-place orders slowly grow. In the Bay Area, we are now on day 40 of isolation.

So I began to wonder,

“Why are men struggling so much emotionally when we are forced to stay at home?”

That’s when I came across a fascinating study done six years ago…

According to a series of studies reported in Science in 2014, men prefer doing things over being alone with their thoughts, even if what they are doing is so painful that they would normally pay money to avoid it. It seems the untrained male mind does not like to be alone with itself.

The Study Is Shocking

For this series of studies, Dr. Timothy Wilson, at the University of Virginia asked hundreds of participants to do nothing but think for 6 to 15 minutes. Individuals were placed in bare rooms and asked to put away any belongings, such as cellphones and pens. Some were told to think about whatever they wanted, others were told to think about a specific topic, such as going out to eat or playing a sport. Later, researchers asked the participants to rate their experience on a nine-point scale afterward, where 1 was completely unenjoyable and 9 was very enjoyable. In both scenarios, roughly half of the volunteers did not enjoy the experience, reporting an enjoyment level at or below a 5 on the 9 point scale.

The researchers wanted to push further and added an electric shock condition to the experiment. For 15 minutes, researchers left volunteers by themselves in a sparse room where they could think about anything, but this time there was a button they could push to shock themselves if they so desired. The results were jaw-dropping:

67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves instead of sitting alone with their thoughts (as reported in Science in 2014).

Wilson surmised that the results may indicate boredom as well as difficulty controlling negative thinking.

It is surprising and a little disturbing that people seem to be so uncomfortable when left to focus on their own thoughts that being shocked with electricity is more preferable.

The stark difference in the rate in which men and women were willing to shock themselves (67% vs. 25%) is fascinating. I speculate this has to do with how men are socialized in that men often perform, achieve, and compete to distract themselves from how they are feeling and what they are thinking. So when forced to stop and turn inwards, it becomes boring, and even, painful, to be alone with thoughts, emotions, and memories. Due to the negativity bias, when left alone with their thoughts, men likely focus more on mistakes made in the past, are (to an extent) pessimistic about the present, and/or worry about how they will fall short in the future.

The First Step In Breaking This Cycle

The first step in making your mind a pleasant neighborhood that you can safely explore is to practice some form of meditation, such as mindfulness in which you learn to allow whatever is arising to arise without judgment. Research has shown a dose effect with mindfulness such that the more you practice it, the more benefits you receive. Benefits shown in research studies include less anger, less anxiety, less stress, less depression, and more frequent positive emotions. And who doesn’t need to experience positive emotions more often?! So, the more we learn to simply let go of the negative thoughts and focus more attention on our positive thoughts, the more we enjoy being alone with ourselves.

One of the best ways to begin a mindfulness practice is to download Dr. John’s Mindfulness for Beginners file here. Practice 5 times a week for 20 minutes a day. If you are too busy for that, break up the 20 minutes across the day and practice for 3 minutes here, 2 minutes there, and 4 minutes there, by simply bringing your attention back to your breath and mindfully taking a deep breath into your belly. Then exhale out longer than you inhaled. Again, the more you practice, the more benefits you will receive. And the less you’ll want to shock yourself when alone with your thoughts. Start making your mind a more pleasant neighborhood today.