No, it's not the same. Photo: Ken Piorkowski / Flickr
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Study shows people prefer pain to their own thoughts – except it doesn’t

"A few bored students gave themselves an unpleasant tingle, but most preferred to sit around instead." Snappy or what?

Take a few dozen students, stick them alone in empty rooms and ask them to do nothing for fifteen minutes. Wait! First connect up electrodes to their ankles and give them the power to zap themselves when bored. This is what researchers in America did, in a study that’s been widely reported – because zap themselves those students did. It looks, on first glance, like proof that people would prefer anything – even pain – to boredom.

Writing in the journal Science, the authors concluded:

What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Sounds bad, right? Students were so bored by their thoughts they decided to electrocute themselves, with a shock so painful they’d previously said they’d actually pay money (money!) not to receive it. They couldn’t even last 15 minutes with inside their own head. It makes for a bleak conclusion – except, it’s not really true. Let’s take a look at what actually happened.

The experiment had two stages. Firstly, the 42 students rated a series of external stimuli from one to nine on how pleasant they were. These ranged from gentle guitar music and a photo of a river scene to a cockroach picture and a mild electric shock. In Part 2, they were told to sit alone in a room and entertain themselves with their thoughts as best they could. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep or leave the chair, but they had the option of experiencing one of the previously-given stimuli.

Over the next 15 minutes, 18 of the 42 students gave themselves at least one shock. The psychologists from Harvard and the University of Virginia didn’t publish any data on how the electric shock – or any of the other stimuli – fared on the ‘pleasant’ scale in Part 1.

Let’s make this clear. 58 percent of the students did not press the button. And even of the ones who did, they didn’t do it often – excluding the one outlier who managed to squeeze in 190 shocks within the quarter-of-an-hour. The average number of shocks was 1.5 for men and just 1 for women.  

In addition, the intensity of the shock was pretty weak: 4 milliamperes (mA) for men and 2.3mA for women. Participants were told the shock is designed to be “unpleasant but not painful”. This chart shows from the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention gives a bit of perspective:

Lodged somewhere between a "faint tingle" and a "slight shock", you can see it's a bit of a stretch to claim painful electrocutions. And as for saying that the volunteers would pay to avoid that pain, exaggeration again. After the participants had experienced the shock, researchers asked how much of an imaginary $5 they’d spend to not receive the shock, to which most people answered about a dollar. The pain was valued at a meagre 58p.

So what does this all mean if you're locked in an empty room with just a zapper for entertainment? If we're going to extrapolate generic conclusions from a really small study, let's at least stick to the results. Chances are, you're not going to shock yourself. And if you did, once would be quite enough. Not because you're scared of your thoughts or you're unhappy in your own company, but because when you've got nothing else to do that big button screaming 'shock me' is just too tantalising to resist - and when is anyone ever in a situation like this in real life? If anything, it's a surprise so few people did actually press it. 

The whole thing might seem like a huge non-issue, but in fairness to the researchers there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. For instance, take a look at the gender aspect: two thirds of the men shocked themselves but just a quarter of the women did – despite being subject to a weaker current. It's certainly worth further investigation. But don't be fooled by the attention-snatching headlines.

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Buying into broadband’s bigger picture

Reliable internet access must be viewed as a basic necessity, writes Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet.

 

As we hurtle towards a connected future, in which the internet will underpin most aspects of our daily lives, connectivity will become a necessity and not a luxury. As a society, we need to consider the wider benefits of enabling internet connections for all and ensure no corner of the county is left out of the digital loop.

Currently, despite government incentive schemes and universal service obligations, the rollout of broadband is left largely to the market, which relies on fixed and wireless network operators justifying deployment based on their own business models. The commercial justification for broadband deployment relies on there being sufficient demand and enough people to pay for a broadband subscription. Put flippantly, are there enough people willing to pay for Netflix, or Amazon? However, rather than depending on the broad appeal of consumer services we need to think more holistically about the provision of internet services. If road building decisions followed the same approach, it would equate to only building a road if everyone living in the area bought yearly gym membership for the leisure centre at the end of the new tarmac. The business case is narrow, and overlooks the far-reaching and ultimately more impactful benefits that are available.

Internet is infrastructure as much as roads are, and could easily prove attractive to a wider range of companies investing in digital technology who stand to gain from internet-enabled communities. Health services are one of the most compelling business cases for internet connectivity, especially in remote, rural communities that are often in the “final five per cent” or suffering with below average internet speeds. Super-fast broadband, defined as 30 Mbps, is now available to 89 per cent of UK homes, but only 59 per cent of rural dwellings can access these speeds.

We mustn’t assume this is a minority; rural areas make up 85 per cent of English land and almost ten million people (almost a fifth of the population) live in rural communities. This figure is rising, and ageing ‒ on average, 23.5 per cent of the rural population is over 65 compared to 16.3 per cent in urban areas ‒ and this presents complicated healthcare challenges for a NHS already struggling to meet demand. It goes without saying that accessibility is an issue: only 80 per cent of rural residents live within 4km of a GP’s surgery compared to 98 per cent of the urban population.

While the NHS may not have the resources to build more surgeries and hospitals, robust broadband connections in these areas would enable them to roll out telehealth options and empower their patients with healthcare monitoring apps and diagnostic tools. This would lower demand on face-to-face services and could improve the health of people in remote areas; a compelling business case for broadband.

We can’t afford to rely on “one business case to rule them all” when it comes to internet connectivity – the needs run far beyond Netflix and Spotify, and the long-term, economic and social benefits are vast. It’s time to shift our thinking, considering internet connectivity as essential infrastructure and invest in it accordingly, especially when it comes to the needs of the remote, rural areas of the country.

Russell Haworth joined Nominet as CEO in 2015. He leads the organisation as it develops its core registry business, explores the potential of new technologies in the global internet sector, and delivers on its commitment to ensuring the internet is a force for good.

This article was taken from a New Statesman roundtable supplement "The Internet as Infrastructure: Why rural connectivity is crucial to the UK’s success"

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