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Put down your devices! People underestimate how enjoyable it is to sit and think, study finds 

If you’re spending too much time on your smartphone, a new study finds it might be more fun to put your device down and just “let your mind wander.”

Researchers in Japan instructed volunteers to sit in a room for up to 20 minutes without any distractions, such as a smartphone.

Across several scenarios, the participants underestimated how much fun it would be to sit and think without anything distracting them.

The results are important in our modern era of “information overload” and constant access to distractions, the experts say, including ubiquitous forms of technology.

People consistently underestimate how much they would enjoy spending time alone with their own thoughts, without anything distracting them, according to the new research (file photo)

People consistently underestimate how much they would enjoy spending time alone with their own thoughts, without anything distracting them, according to the new research (file photo)

The new research was conducted by experts from institutions in Japan, in collaboration with the University of Reading.

“People have a remarkable ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” said lead study author Aya Hatano, PhD, of Kyoto University in Japan.


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‘Our research suggests that individuals struggle to realize how compelling thinking can be.

‘That could explain why people prefer to deal with devices and other distractions, rather than take a moment of reflection and imagination in everyday life.’

The team conducted a series of six experiments with a total of 259 participants, all students from Japan or the UK.

Researchers compared people’s predictions about how much they would enjoy just sitting and thinking with their actual experience of doing so.

In the first experiment, they asked people to predict how much they would enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes.

They weren’t allowed to do anything distracting, such as reading, walking around, looking at a smartphone, or taking a nap at night.

Afterwards, the participants shared how much they had enjoyed doing nothing more than just sitting in their chairs.

The researchers found that people spent significantly more time with their thoughts than they predicted.

This was true for all variations of the experiment — whether they were sitting in a bare conference room or in a small dark tent room with no visual stimulation, or whether they were sitting for three minutes or 20 minutes.

Shown is the experimental setup - a bare meeting room (left) and a small dark tent room with no visual stimulation (right)

Shown is the experimental setup – a bare meeting room (left) and a small dark tent room with no visual stimulation (right)

In another experiment, the researchers compared one group of participants’ predictions about how much they would enjoy thinking with another group’s predictions about how much they would watch the news on the Internet.

The think group expected to experience significantly less pleasure from the task than the news control group, but afterward the two groups reported similar levels of pleasure.

Researchers emphasized that participants did not rate thinking as an extremely enjoyable task, but simply as more enjoyable than they thought it would be. The participants’ pleasure level averaged between 3 and 4 on a 7-point scale.

The results could help the public detach from their smartphones and be “positively engaged” with themselves.

“On the bus on the way to work, you can check your phone instead of immersing yourself in your internal free-floating thinking because you predict that thinking will be boring,” study co-author Dr Kou Murayama said. the University of Reading.

“However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you’re missing out on an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation.”

Future research could explore the reasons why people underestimate how much they will enjoy thinking, or which types of thinking are the most fun and motivating.

“Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking,” said Dr. Murayama.

Results also need to be replicated in more diverse populations than the current study, in which all participants were from Japan or the UK.

Different countries have different levels of smartphone addiction, a recent study found, so it’s possible that, for example, Chinese citizens enjoy sitting and thinking much less than citizens from other countries.

The new study is published today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.


A recent survey revealed the countries with the highest rates of smartphone addiction – and surprisingly, the UK isn’t even in the top 10.

Researchers at McGill University used data on smartphone usage between 2014 and 2020 from nearly 34,000 participants in 24 countries around the world.

China, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia had the highest smartphone usage, they found, while Germany and France had the lowest.

Amazingly, the UK was only in 16th place out of 24 countries, while the US was even further behind, in 18th place.

1. China (36.18)

2. Saudi Arabia (35.73)

3. Malaysia (35.43)

4. Brazil (32)

5. South Korea (31.62)

6. Iran (31.52)

7. Canada (31.11)

8. Turkey (30.92)

9. Egypt (29.54)

10. Nepal (29.41)

11. Italy (28.82)

12. Australia (28.61)

13. Israel (28.29)

14. Serbia (28.16)

15. Japan (27.71)

16. United Kingdom (27.69)

17. India (27.2)

18. United States (26.68)

19. Romania (25.52)

20. Nigeria (24.73)

21. Belgium (24.24)

22. Switzerland (23.45)

23. France (20.29)

24. Germany (18.44)

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