Saturday, November 9, 2019

Cross-cultural consistency & relativity in the enjoyment of thinking vs doing: Participants much preferred solitary everyday activities, such as reading or watching TV, to thinking for pleasure

Cross-cultural consistency and relativity in the enjoyment of thinking versus doing. Buttrick, Nicholas et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov 2019.

Abstract: Which is more enjoyable: trying to think enjoyable thoughts or doing everyday solitary activities? Wilson et al. (2014) found that American participants much preferred solitary everyday activities, such as reading or watching TV, to thinking for pleasure. To see whether this preference generalized outside of the United States, we replicated the study with 2,557 participants from 12 sites in 11 countries. The results were consistent in every country: Participants randomly assigned to do something reported significantly greater enjoyment than did participants randomly assigned to think for pleasure. Although we found systematic differences by country in how much participants enjoyed thinking for pleasure, we used a series of nested structural equation models to show that these differences were fully accounted for by country-level variation in 5 individual differences, 4 of which were positively correlated with thinking for pleasure (need for cognition, openness to experience, meditation experience, and initial positive affect) and 1 of which was negatively correlated (reported phone usage).

As we predicted, Wilson et al.’s (2014) finding that participants enjoyed doing an external activity more than they enjoyed thinking for pleasure proved to be quite robust, replicating in all 11 of the countries studied. The average effect size was quite large, though smaller than in the original study (d ! .98 vs. 1.83). The uniformity of this finding among the participants and countries sampled here suggests that, across a wide variety of cultures, turning one’s attention inward to focus on enjoyable topics in the absence of any external cues is far less enjoyable than engaging in everyday activities such as reading or watching a video.

One reason for this is that thinking for pleasure is difficult. As noted by Westgate et al. (2017), to think for pleasure, one must choose topics to think about, maintain attention to those topics,and keep competing thoughts outside of awareness, all of which may tax mental resources (Wegner, 1994). Consistent with this view, participants in the thinking condition of the present study reported that it was somewhat difficult to concentrate on their thoughts (M ! 5.18 on a 9-point scale), and the more difficulty they reported, the less they enjoyed thinking, r(1271) = -.36, p < .001. Notably, this correlation did not differ between countries, Q(10) = 3.20, p = .98. One implication of these findings is that people might enjoy thinking for pleasure more if it were made easier, and indeed, as noted earlier, Westgate et al. found that giving people a simple thinking aid—are minder of topics they had said they would enjoy thinking about—significantly increased their enjoyment of thinking.

An additional purpose of the present study was to explore cultural differences in the extent to which people enjoy thinking for pleasure, and some country-level differences emerged. These differences, however, were fully explained by international variations in five individual differences, and once country-level differences in those variables were taken into account, the country-level differences themselves were no longer significant. Participants were more likely to enjoy their thoughts to the extent that they practiced meditation, were high in the need for cognition, high in openness to experience, reported a low level of phone usage, and were in a positive mood. What might explain these relationships?

The correlation of the enjoyment of thinking with meditation is consistent with the idea that cultural practices and norms influence the amount of experience people have spending time alone with their thoughts, and that those with greater experience enjoy thinking more (e.g., H. Smith, 1991; Tsai et al., 2006; Tsai, Knutson, et al., 2007; Tsai, Miao, et al., 2007; Yoshioka et al., 2002). The correlation of the enjoyment of thinking with need for cognition is consistent with the idea that thinking for pleasure is effortful and thus is more enjoyable for those who typically find thinking to be an attractive activity (e.g., Westgate et al., 2017; Wilson et al., 2018a). The correlation of the enjoyment of thinking with openness to experience suggests that those who value creativity and new experiences are more motivated to think for pleasure (or more skilled at it). Alahmadi et al. (2017) found that motivating people to think for pleasure increases their enjoyment considerably, and it is possible that such motivation is associated with openness to experience. The fact that people who were in positive moods enjoyed thinking more is consistent with research that those in a positive mood are likely to find it easier to recruit and think about positive topics (Matt, Vázquez, & Campbell, 1992).

We also found that the five key individual-difference variables varied by culture, which fully explained why residents of some countries enjoyed thinking more than others. For example, Japanese participants enjoyed thinking the least, perhaps because they were the lowest in openness to experience and need for cognition, among the lowest in initial positive affect and in experience with meditation (surprisingly), and among the highest in reported phone use. In contrast, American participants were in the middle of the pack in the enjoyment of thinking, probably because they were also in the middle of the pack on most of the important predictor variables (e.g., openness to experience, experience with meditation, initial positive affect). These findings suggest that to understand cultural variations in the enjoyment of thinking for pleasure, it is best to examine cultural differences in the individual practices and personality variables that are associated with it.

We additionally found evidence that three country-level variables—population density, GDP, and “masculinity”(aka cultural levels of interpersonal competitiveness)—weakly predicted individuals’ enjoyment of thinking. One possible (speculative) explanation for these findings is that people who grew up in a more rural area or in a poorer country may have had less opportunity to distractthemselves with external entertainments and more practice thinking for pleasure. Alternately, the experience of living in densely populated cities may lead to residents feeling that their lives are less meaningful and more overloaded (Buttrick, Heintzelman, Weser, & Oishi, 2018; Milgram, 1970), potentially demotivating them from making the effort to turn inward. In addition, cultures that stress masculinity and competitiveness may be more likely to view thinking for pleasure as a waste of time. It should be noted, though, that even in the countries with the lowest populationdensities (e.g., Brazil and the United States) an dthe lowest GDPs (e.g., Serbia, Costa Rica), participants enjoyed thinking less than doing.

The present study naturally has some limitations. First, as in Wilson et al. (2014) Study 8, all participants were college students, thus limiting the generalizability of the results. However, whereas college students may be an unusual population in some regards (e.g., Henrich et al., 2010), studies show that nonstudents also have difficulty thinking for pleasure (Westgate et al., 2017; Wilson et al., 2014, Study 9). Second, althoughoursample of countries represents a wide variety of cultures, we did not sampletheentirety of the world’s population, and it is possible that enjoyment of thinking for pleasure differs in some of the cultures that we did not sample.

Third, for practical reasons, we used shortened versions of most of the individual-difference measures, which resulted in reduced reliability. For example, we used Gosling et al.’s (2003) 10-item measure of the Big Five personality traits, which had low alphas, particularly for agreeableness. In this regard, it is interesting to compare the cultural differences in Big Five traits that we obtained with those obtained by Schmitt et al. (2007), who used Benet Martinez and John’s (1998) 44-item measure. The correlations between mean levels of openness to experience, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, and agreeableness, in the nine countries included in both our study and theirs, were, respectively, r(8) = .92, .90, .62, .49, and .30. This increases our confidence in the reliability of our results for some traits (particularly openness to experience and conscientiousness) but decreases it for others (e.g., agreeableness).

In sum, 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 magnitude of this preference is systematically related to several individual differences that characterize the residents of some countries more than others. These findings raise the question of whether there are conditions under which people throughout the world might enjoy thinking more and whether there would be value in doing so. Progress is being made on these fronts; as mentioned, Westgateetal.(2017) found that people enjoy thinking more when cognitive load is reduced by giving them a simple thinking aid, and studies have found other benefits to thinking for pleasure, namely a sense of personal meaningfulness (Alahmadi et al., 2017; Raza et al., 2018).

The fact that thinking for pleasure can be made easier is interesting in light of the present finding that reported cell phone usage was negatively associated enjoying one’s thoughts. Although much has been written about the increasing reliance on electronic devices and the possible negative consequences of “device obsession” (e.g., Carr, 2011; Kushlev & Dunn, 2015; Powers, 2010), our studyisthe firstto link device usage to a decrease in the ability to sit alone and enjoy one’s thoughts. The present findings are correlational, of course, so we do not knowwhetherusingcellphones makes it more difficult for people to enjoy thinking or whether people who do not enjoy thinking are especially likely to use cell phones, or whether some third variable causes both. It is a provocative possibility, though, that the allure of electronic devices is preventing people from making an effort to find pleasure in their thoughts.

If so, efforts to encourage people to put away their phones and “just think” may be of some benefit. For example, in a field study by Wilson, Westgate, Buttrick, and Gilbert (2018b), participants who were randomly assigned to spend spare moments during their day thinking for pleasure (with thinking aids) found this experience to be morepersonally meaningful, and as enjoyable, as did participantswho were randomly assigned to spend their spare moments as they normally did (which often involved using electronic devices). Much more work needs to be done to determine who values thinking for pleasure and when, but this initial evidence suggests that people may find it to be worth the effort if they gave it a try.

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