Is being alone with your thoughts so unpleasant that most people would rather self-administer a painful electric shock? While a previous study suggested that was the case, new research published in Scientific Reports indicates that there might be another explanation for the observed behavior.
A provocative piece of research published in the journal Science in 2014 concluded that people would rather administer a mild electric shock to themselves than be left alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. The findings were taken as evidence that self-administering an unpleasant shock was less discomforting than engaging in self-directed thought, but the authors of the new study argued there were likely other reasons for why participants opted to shock themselves.
“The original paper by Wilson and colleagues created much media attention and after having previously worked on suppressive effects of painful shocks on behavioral performance I was skeptical of the author’s explanation of the data (electric shock is less aversive than engagement in thinking),” said study author Andreas B. Eder of the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg.
“The experiments were also easy to conduct and I had already the equipment for shock administration. It was more a side project that aroused my curiosity (pun intended because curiosity about the novelty of shock is the main alternative explanation that we proposed in our paper).”
In the original study, undergraduate students were subjected to a mild electric shock and indicated how much they would be willing to pay to avoid the experience again if they had $5 at their disposal. Most participants reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again, indicating that the experience was unpleasant.
The participants then were asked to sit alone in a sparsely furnished laboratory room with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend 15 minutes “entertaining yourself with your thoughts as best as you can.” They were also given the option of administering the shock to themselves again by pressing a button.
In a series of experiments, which included 254 participants, Eder and his colleagues conducted similar research with a slight twist. While sitting alone in the laboratory room, the participants were given the option to self-administer a familiar shock, a shock that was weaker than what they had experienced, a shock that was stronger than what they had experienced, or a shock of random intensity.
Replicating the previous results, the researchers found that the majority of participants shocked themselves during the thinking period. Rather than utilizing mild shocks to distract themselves, however, most participants self-administered all four of the different types of shocks, suggesting that avoiding discomfort was not their primary motivation. Participants administered the familiar shock least often.
The researchers also found that shock administrations tended to happen most frequently at the beginning of the waiting period and then declined over time. Even when the participants were given the option to distract themselves with a button that produced no shock, the majority still opted to administer unpleasant shocks to themselves.
“A major implication of our research is that people appear to seek out novel experiences even if they are not intrinsically pleasant,” Eder told PsyPost. “This drive for curiosity does not fit to the simple idea of hedonism that behavior is (exclusively) motivated by pleasure/reward seeking and avoidance of discomfort/punishment. The data also contradict effort minimization as a general law of motivation, because a substantial proportion of our participants pressed buttons for self-administration of shocks although they could just sit without doing anything.”
“Another insight that can be gained from our study is that pleasant/unpleasant affect is inherently relative; this means, whether an experience is pleasant or entertaining depends on the reference standard that is psychologically active for the person (a phenomenon described in psychology as ‘hedonic contrast’); consequently, one should refrain from categorization of events (e.g., engagement in thinking) as if they were pleasant or unpleasant in the absolute sense.”
The findings cast doubt on the hypothesis that being subjected to electric shocks is less discomforting than engaging in thoughts. But it is still unclear whether curiosity, thrill-seeking, or some other motivation (or combination of motivations) is responsible for this behavior.
“A shortcoming of our research is that our study design tested the plausibility of the negative reinforcement hypothesis, but the design was not optimized for a fair test of the alternative hypothesis (curiosity),” Eder explained. “A consistent number of participants also administered shocks to them at a very high rate – it would be interesting to know which motivation they had to display this extreme behavior.”
The study, “Motivations underlying self-infliction of pain during thinking for pleasure“, was authored by Andreas B. Eder, Franzisca Maas, Alexander Schubmann, Anand Krishna, and Thorsten M. Erle.