From the Lab: Keep ‘Em Busy

In a 2010 study in Psychological Science, Christopher Hsee, Adelle X. Yang, and Liangyan Wang found that:

  • without a justification, people choose to be idle
  • even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy
  • people who are busy are happier than people who are idle
  • curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy

In their first experiment, after participants completed a survey, the researchers gave them a choice between delivering the survey to the next room and waiting 15 minutes for the next part of the experiment or delivering the survey to a room across campus before returning for the next part of the experiment, a round-trip journey of 12 to 15 minutes. For half of the participants, researchers justified the walk by telling participants that those who walked would get a different (but no more attractive) piece of candy than those who didn’t walk.

When no justification was given, only 32% of the participants chose to take a walk. However, when a justification was given (even a totally bogus one), 59% of participants chose to take a walk. In both cases, the participants who took a walk felt significantly happier than those who were idle.

In their second experiment, participants were simply assigned to take a walk or wait. Despite the fact that they had no choice in the matter, busy participants were still significantly happier than idle ones.

A 2014 study by Timothy D. Wilson, et. al. in Science took this concept even farther, asking participants to spend time up to 15 minutes in a blank room with nothing to entertain them but their thoughts. In one of their experiments, 32% of the participants “cheated,” engaging in some kind of activity other than thinking. As in the Hsee study, those who did so were significantly happier. In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity to give themselves an electric shock—something they’d previously indicated they would pay money to avoid. Amazingly, 67% of the men and 25% women chose to do so at least once, simply to be able to do something!

All of this research is fascinating—but what does it have to do with speaking?

As I note in The Science of Speaking, the audience is evaluating you the entire time you’re onstage. This not only includes the time you’re presenting, but also the time it takes to get ready. While it hopefully won’t take you 15 minutes to get ready, it will take you some time. And for better or worse, how the audience feels during this time can affect how they view you and your presentation.

A potential solution suggested by this research is to give the audience something to do while they wait for you—even something as simple as talking amongst themselves. In fact, this is exactly the approach that I take in the public speaking classes at Stanford when I need time to set up the video camera, or in my social dance classes when I need to change the battery of my microphone. While I don’t have any hard data to back it up, anecdotal evidence suggests that my students end up being much happier when I give them something to do instead of wait, even if it doesn’t seem like much.

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