One by one, hundreds of college students were asked to be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes – no phones, no books, no pens for doodling – nothing. They were asked only to stay awake, be quiet, and sit idly in their seats. Before beginning, students were shown a button that would deliver an electric shock and told they could push it if they wanted. Every one of them said “No way.”
Probably reflecting their own biases, study leaders thought students would enjoy the opportunity to meditate and reflect. The scientists were stunned to learn nearly half the students chose to self-inflict an electrical shock over just sitting quietly and thinking for a few moments.
After the brief session, nine in ten said their mind wandered – even though there was nothing competing for their attention. When the experiment was expanded for students to try and be quiet at home, a third admitted to cheating by using their cellphones.
Why couldn’t they just sit and do nothing for 15 minutes? They said they got bored. One psychology professor said he found it disheartening the students were so stupefied they’d rather shock themselves than have to think quietly for a few minutes.
If you can’t spend a few minutes alone with yourself doing nothing, you sure won’t want to spend it doing something effortful, like reading.
Does it surprise you when I say 30 million adults in the U.S. are functionally illiterate? How about when I tell you 50% of U.S. adults can’t read an 8th grade book? When reading is a chore and not a pleasure, people avoid doing it. Pew Research says one in four U.S. adults admits to not reading any books in the past year – not all of one, not part of one, not in print, not electronically, and not an audiobook, either. It will only get worse: one of every three high school graduates will never read a book after high school.
Most successful people agree that reading books is important because it teaches us to focus and think more deeply. Inc. says business leaders believe deep reading cultivates the knowledge, habits, and skills needed to make good decisions. Higher-income people read more than lower-income people and college graduates read more than non-graduates. Bill Gates reads a book a week, Mark Cuban reads three hours a day, and Warren Buffett spends 80% of his day reading.
What about college students, the next generation of Young Moderns?
A BYU study found two-thirds of college students say their busy social lives don’t leave any time for reading. Forbes says half of students don’t enjoy reading serious books or articles and only do it when forced to.
The National Review says half of all college students learn almost nothing that advances their ability to think critically, reason, or write. More than half admit to spending more classroom time texting and browsing than paying attention to the teacher (I can attest to this firsthand among students in my MBA classes). The latest reports tell us Americans spend eight to ten hours a day using smartphones and watching television. No wonder they read so few books.
Combined, my two books have sold nearly 500 million fewer than the world’s most popular book, Don Quixote. Click on the image below to go the Amazon page where you can read about them and order them – look out Miguel de Cervantes!
*The average novel has 80,000 words. At the average reading speed of 300 words per minute, it would take 4.4 hours to read one. If half of college students would rather zap themselves than spend 15 minutes doing nothing, imagine how many more would prefer a jolt of electricity to investing four hours in effortful activity.