People the world over prefer distractions over their own thoughts

November 8, 2019, 9:20 a.m.
Couple in bed staring at phones.
Photo: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

If you're reading this, it's safe to assume you arrived by internet.

Maybe you caught the headline as it raced by on Twitter. Or you might be taking a break from watching a very mediocre movie on Netflix.

It doesn't matter. Because according to a new study, it all adds up to the same thing: pouncing on one distraction after another.

And the thing is, they're welcome distractions. Because, as the research — published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — notes, people will do just about anything to avoid being left to their own thoughts.

For their study, researchers designed a sample test for more than 2,557 participants in 11 countries. They divided their test subjects into two groups. In the first group, people were asked to spend 10 to 15 minutes "entertaining themselves with their thoughts as best they could."

Just sit back and think about things. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, not really, The second group — the one where people were told to surf the net, play a video game, or even read a book — reported having much more fun. They scored more highly on entertainment and lower on boredom. And the preference for distraction seemed to be a global phenomenon, which may come as a surprise to Italians who are famously brilliant at doing nothing.

"The preference for doing external activities such as reading, watching TV, or surfing the internet rather than 'just thinking' appears to be strong throughout the world," the researchers note in the study.

But there does seem to be an important omission from the study. Shouldn't the quality of thoughts matter? If you've got something positive to think about — say, how you're going to spend your vacation or the great screenplay you've already half-written in your head — why are you reading this? Scram already!

On the other hand, if negative thoughts are baying at your door — a sad or painful experience, perhaps — by all means, keep scrolling.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to take up much of your time here; it's a short study that gets to the point in a hurry. Don't worry though. There's a whole world of distractions out there. Say, have you seen that ship teetering at the brink of Niagara Falls? And how about those charming cows? Bet you didn't didn't know they could smell you from six miles away.

And that's something to think about.