An idle mind may not necessarily be the devil's workshop; to the contrary, too much stress on action could produce unforeseen outcomes, says a new study.
"Our research highlights how the pressures of society to be active may produce fairly unregulated behaviour," said Dolores Albarracín, a professor of psychology at Illinois University, who led the study.
Albarracín said the findings could help our understanding of how common words used in everyday life may influence conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorders.
While such conditions have genetic roots, Albarracín said, the social and cultural factors that exacerbate them are not well understood.
In a series of experiments, researchers primed participants with a set of words suggesting action or inaction and then observed their behaviour.
The primes list consisted of words such as "go" and "motivation" that represented an active thought, or words like "rest" and "stop" that indicated inaction.
In this analysis, Albarracín and colleagues subjected participants to different sets of word primes and then asked them to perform a task. The tasks ranged from doodling to eating, and in some cases, learning new information.
The intensity of the behaviour was measured, and in two of the studies participants could choose to do none of the tasks and instead rest.
The studies demonstrated that participants primed with an action word were more likely to choose active tasks. But what was most compelling to Albarracín was that the same stimulus triggered a diverse array of tasks that are normally not seen together, such as eating, learning and doodling.
The researchers successfully reproduced this paradigm in the lab. In one setting, the active word prime enhanced learning, but in a different context the same stimulus encouraged participants to doodle or eat.
"What you actually end up promoting is a very general message to be active," Albarracín said. "You can be active by exercising or learning, but you can also be active by driving fast or taking drugs. That is the danger of a global message to be active."
This analysis will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.