A study on the thinking experiment titled "Thinking About Thinking: People Underestimate How Enjoyable and Engaging Just Waiting Is." has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Researchers have conducted six experiments involving 259 participants, comparing how people expected to enjoy sitting around and thinking with how much they actually enjoyed the experience. Participants were made to sit alone for 20 minutes without any distractions such as smartphones, books, or being able to walk about, and to predict how much they would enjoy it beforehand. Multiple variations of the same experiment were performed, reducing the time to 3 minutes, removing visual stimulation by sitting participants in a dark, tented area or empty conference room, and more.
The researchers found that in every scenario, participants enjoyed the experience more than they initially predicted. One experiment saw a group of participants predict their enjoyment of a bout of thinking, and another predicted their enjoyment of checking the news online. The thinking group more greatly underestimated their actual enjoyment, and both groups reported similar enjoyment levels after their respective activities. Overall, thinking on its own was rated between 3 to 4 on a 7-point scale of enjoyment.
"Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking. Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be. That could explain why people prefer keeping themselves busy with devices and other distractions, rather than taking a moment for reflection and imagination in daily life," said study lead author Aya Hatano, Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan.
"It's now extremely easy to 'kill time.' On the bus on your way to work, you can check your phone rather than immerse yourself in your internal free-floating thinking, because you predict thinking will be boring. However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation," said study co-author Kou Murayama, Ph.D., of the University of Tübingen in Germany.
You can read more from the study here.