You’re sitting in a dark room and you’re awfully bored. In front of you is a desk with keyboard, mouse, and computer screen. The screen is black apart from a white clock, around which a little dot speeds until you press one of two buttons. You then type where the clock was when you pressed the button, or when you ‘felt the urge to press the button’. While the former is clear and easy to do, the latter is properly weird: what is this ‘urge’ supposed to be? You press the button without any consequence, there is no reason to press one or the other, it’s all completely random. Sure, sometimes you really feel something ahead of the button press, but often there’s nothing. Just now, for example, you were thinking these thoughts and pressed the button without really paying any attention. But even when you’re fully focussed, you often don’t feel anything before the action. If you had any such ‘urge’, you have no clue when it would’ve happened. And when you do have some sort of feeling before the action, it’s more of a preview that you will now press the button. But ‘urge’, or ‘wanting’ to press the button? You have to type in something, the experiment requires it. You know that you pressed at around 25, so this ‘urge’ probably came just before that, maybe at 20. You type in 20 and the next trial begins.
And so it goes on and on and on. You have no idea for how long you’ve been doing this – 20 minutes, 30 minutes? There are maybe 15 seconds between each button press, so you must have done this around 100 times by now. The entire experiment is supposed to last an hour, so you have at least the same number ahead of you. This is no fun and you’re longing for the end. You’re getting increasingly tired and wouldn’t mind a coffee. There have been times when you just couldn’t keep your eyes open, when you were so tired and bored that you couldn’t see. Blinded by boredom you pressed the button without noticing and had to type some number at random. You’ve tried your hardest to keep your eyes open though. Usually, you can concentrate for long stretches of time, but this experiment is as hard as anything you’ve done recently. It seems easy, but that’s exactly why it’s hard: there’s just nothing to do. It’s just you, the experiment, and the fight against sleep.
And it started off so well. You arrived and were greeted by the cute female scientist you kind of developed a crush on over the next few minutes but then she led you to the small dark room with the computer you’re in now. She asked you to read the instructions on the computer screen. You could ask for clarification if you didn’t understand anything.
You didn’t understand anything, so you asked for clarification.
‘You just sit here and press this button whenever you want to.’
‘Whenever I want to?’
‘Yes’, she said, ‘but don’t plan ahead. Press spontaneously, whenever you want to.’
‘But when do I want to press the button?’
‘That’s up to you.’
‘Can I press immediately after the clock starts turning to save time?’
‘Well, you could, but we’d prefer if you waited a little at the beginning of each trial. As I said, you’re not supposed to plan ahead, and that would be planning.’
‘But, say, I could decide, spontaneously of course, at the beginning of each trial to press the button immediately.’
‘Yes’, she said, ‘but please don’t.’
‘So I press this button, which doesn’t have any consequence, whenever I want to.’
‘Or when you feel the urge to press the button.’
‘Then you type in when you wanted to press the button according to the clock’, she said, pointing to the clock on the screen. ‘It all makes a lot more sense once you’ve done a few practice trials.’
After a few practice trials you were no wiser than before, but for fear of seeming stupid, you just went along with it anyway and started the experiment.
It’s weird typing in these numbers that supposedly reflect something you apparently felt. You’re pretty sure there isn’t anything usually, but what do you know? You’re just a random guy who needs some money to buy food. They’re the psychologists; if they tell you there is an urge before such actions, there probably is. Maybe it’s something unconscious, psychologists often study the unconscious, you think. Maybe you’re not supposed to feel it. But didn’t she say when you ‘feel the urge’? That sounds conscious. Anyway, the next trial starts. And so you press the button, type the number, wait for a few seconds, and the whole cycle repeats once again.
You understand that one needs to keep one's experiments simple and all, but man, this experiment is really boring. Before the experiment, you signed a form that you’d take part, and that sheet included some interesting stuff. First, it said that you could stop the experiment at any time and still get paid. This is clearly a lie because you can’t just stop and leave because of social conventions. How would it look if you just got up after 5 minutes, walked out of the dark room and asked to get paid? You just couldn’t do that. Secondly, it said that they ensured you would come to no harm, which is also clearly a lie. Sure, you’re not getting any electric shocks or anything, but they’ve taken so many potentially harmful things out of the experiment that it has become distressingly boring. You wish you’d be given some electric shocks every once in a while, just so you’d not be so bored. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but at least something would happen.
A while ago, you considered doing something else just to keep yourself awake, like thinking of your favourite song or something. But by now you can’t even be bothered anymore. This boredom is so piercing that you thinking of your favourite song in this context would quickly turn clockworkorangy and you’d start hating your favourite song.
And so you press and wait and type and press and wait and type and it never ends until all of a sudden it does. The screen turns white, the lights go on, and the scientist’s head pops into the room to tell you it’s all over, you can go now. She asks you how it was and of course you lie, you say it was fine, maybe a little repetitive, which she thinks is unfortunately necessary. But then you receive your money and you walk out of the room, out of the building into the gleaming white sun, a light so bright you never thought possible after that hour in the dark room. While in that room time seemed to warp, twist back on itself into a loop of 15-second trials you feared might never end. Out in the free, you’re relieved at it all being over, but you’re also tired, worn out from the repetitive simplicity, the sheer number of repetitions of nothingness and it is then that you vouch to never go back and do an experiment again, even if you need the money. You vouch to get your life together, get your shit together, stop spending so much money, just so you’ll never be in that position again where you need to be in that dark room pushing bored buttons into infinity.