By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

What do you think would happen if you spent 6-15 minutes in a room with nothing to interact with but your own thoughts? If this idea gives you an uneasy pause, you are not alone. While it’s tempting to believe that we big-brained humans enjoy thinking for thinking’s sake, it turns out that most of us would rather focus on almost anything else rather than just letting our minds wander on their own.

For example, in the most recent time-use survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 95% of the population reported that they engage in leisure-based activities each day, but only 22% of us reported that any of that leisure time was spent on relaxing and thinking (compared to the nearly 80% who watch TV as a daily leisure activity).

Now back to the question of what would happen if we spent time alone with our thoughts, this is precisely what a group of behavioral scientists sought to answer in their research. Over eleven different studies were conducted to explore what would happen if people were forced to spend time alone with nothing but their thoughts for company. Participants were recruited to try out this experience in both a university lab setting as well as in their own respective homes, and regardless of location, it turned out that thinking for thinking’s sake was not a particularly enjoyable experience.

Prior to engaging in the experiment, participants were asked to put aside their personal belongings (e.g., cell phones, writing instruments, etc.) and were then placed in a room by themselves with the instructions to remain seated, and awake, and to actively entertain themselves with their own thoughts. After this “thinking period,” which ranged from 6 to 15 minutes, the researchers then asked the participants a series of questions including how enjoyable they found the experience to be and whether they found it difficult to concentrate during that time period.

The majority of participants reported they found it hard to focus on their thoughts, and that their minds wandered easily even though there were no competing distractions. Additionally, the researchers found that the participants did not particularly enjoy their time thinking alone, with the majority reporting it as a neutral experience at best and a negative one at worst. 

Surprisingly, these effects were even more pronounced when the experiments took place in the comfort of the participants’ own homes, with participants saying the experience was even less enjoyable and created even more difficulty in focusing their thoughts than if it had occurred in a lab setting.

To better understand the exact parameters of this phenomena, the researchers recreated the same scenario, only this time giving participants an external non-social task to complete during the same time frame (e.g., reading, listening to music, or writing). The results confirmed that literally, any of these assigned externally directed activities were significantly more enjoyable to participants vs. being instructed to freely engage with their own thoughts.

In fact, in one of the studies conducted, the researchers arranged for a small electric-shock generator to be present and available to participants in the room during their 6 to 15-minute thinking period. After experiencing a demonstration of the apparatus (prior to the experiment), all the participants explicitly stated that they would pay money to avoid having to experience the device’s effects again. However, later while alone during the experiment’s “thinking period,” many of the participants voluntarily gave themselves at least one more shock from the device. While this behavior was highest among males (67%), it was suggestive that even negative external activities may be significantly preferable to being left alone with our thoughts.

In conclusion, it appears that most people find it difficult to concentrate and often experience wandering minds when left to their own devices. In fact, we may actually prefer negative stimuli such as electric shocks over feelings of boredom. For marketers, this research provides valuable insights into human behavior and preferences by understanding that people generally prefer external stimulation over solitary introspection. Here are a few tips based on this research:

  1. Leverage distractions: Instead of relying solely on content that requires either deep or habitual thinking, consider incorporating elements that engage the audience in a more interactive and entertaining manner. This could involve gamification, multimedia experiences, or interactive storytelling.
  2. Offer convenience: Recognize that people have a natural inclination to fill their leisure time with easily accessible activities, such as watching TV. Tailor your marketing efforts to provide convenient solutions or experiences that seamlessly fit into their existing routines.
  3. Enhance social engagement: Since social interaction often trumps solitary thinking, leverage social platforms and strategies to foster community and connection. Encourage conversations, user-generated content, and collaborations to create a sense of belonging and engagement with your brand.
  4. Provide external stimuli: Consider how your product or service can offer external stimulation that complements or enhances the user’s experience. This could involve incorporating music, visuals, or interactive elements that captivate and hold their attention.

By carefully aligning your marketing strategies with this innate preference for external engagement, you can create new opportunities to connect and engage with customers on a more appealing level by helping them get out of their own heads.

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