It is clear from everyday life that the control of mental activity meets with some success:
Why Groups Fail to Share Information Effectively How pushing a thought out of consciousness can Thought suppression it back with a vengeance. It sometimes feels like our minds are not on the same team as us.
I want to go to sleep, but it wants to keep me awake rerunning events from my childhood. I want to forget the lyrics Thought suppression that stupid 80s pop song but it wants to repeat them over and over again ad nauseam. This internal battle can be anything from the attempt to suppress an occasional minor irritation did I turn off the cooker?
Perpetual thoughts of food drive people to obesity, persistent negative thoughts cue depression and traumatic events push back into consciousness to be relived over and over again. The classic response to this mental wrangling — whether relatively trivial or deadly serious — is to try and forget about it, push it to the back of our minds or some other variation on the theme.
Unfortunately counter to our intuition about what should work, psychological research has discovered in the last twenty years that this approach is not just wrong, but has the potential to make the situation worse. Thought rebound In the study that kicked off research in this area Professor Daniel Wegner and colleagues investigated the effects of thought suppression Wegner et al.
Participants were first asked to try not to think about a white bear for 5 minutes, then for the next 5 minutes asked to think about a white bear. Throughout the experiment participants verbalised whatever thoughts they were having and, each time they thought of a white bear, rang a bell.
Participants who first tried to suppress their thoughts rang the bell almost twice as often as participants in a control group. It appeared that the very act of first trying to suppress a thought made it fight back all the stronger.
The same results are even found when people are not directly instructed to suppress certain thoughts, but are merely encouraged to do so through subtle forms of manipulation.
Suppressing emotions Since the discovery of the rebound effect researchers have probed the situations in which it occurs, especially how suppression interacts with emotions.
Unsurprisingly thoughts more emotionally laden than white bears are particularly vulnerable to the rebound effect. In one study participants were asked to write about either an emotional or nonemotional everyday event Petrie et al.
It was the emotional events that were hardest for participants to suppress. But even if emotional events are particularly susceptible to the rebound effect, perhaps we get better at suppressing particular thoughts with practice?
Studies have, therefore, looked at how people manage when they are suppressing thoughts they are used to suppressing. The results revealed exactly the expected pattern: Suppressing thoughts in the lab is one thing, though, suppressing them in real life, over a period of time, is quite another.
To get an idea about suppression over longer time-frames, Trinder and Salkovskis asked people to monitor intrusive thoughts over four days. Compared with a control group, participants who tried to suppress negative intrusive thoughts found it more uncomfortable and moreover experienced more of the thoughts they were trying to suppress.
It seems that even with practice thought suppression is likely to lead to the rebound effect in the long-run.
Back with a vengeance Spurred on by these findings of the paradoxical effects of thought suppression, psychologists have uncovered this rebound effect in all sorts of other contexts. Here are some examples discussed by Wenzlaff and Wegner For those on a diet or trying to quit smoking, thought suppression may be counter-productive.
Distraction emerged as a better technique. Just like trying not to think about food or cigarettes, memories also seem to come back stronger when they are intentionally suppressed. But only some aspects of memory seem to be enhanced, with suppression sometimes interfering with the order in which events are recalled.WEGNER, SCHNEIDER, CARTER, AND WHITE Although the evidence is sketchy, there is some indication that the task of conscious thought suppression can be difficult.
The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in (Vol. 53, No. 1) initiated an entirely new field of study on thought suppression.
Over the next decade, Wegner developed his theory of "ironic processes" to explain why it's so hard to tamp down unwanted thoughts. Thought suppression is a common feature seen in OCD, especially for those who suffer with what is sometimes called Pure Obsessional OCD, or “Pure O”.
But nobody wants to have anxiety provoking thoughts. Thoughts on suppression James Erskine and George Georgiou look at how trying not to think of an action might lead you down that very path For over two decades researchers have shown that there are unexpected consequences when an individual actively tries to avoid certain thoughts.
If thought suppression were a perfect process, it would ideally leave a person with no vestige of the unwanted thought at all.
The initial "white bear" experiments of Wegner et al () compared thought suppression to this ideal and found it wanting. Suppressing thoughts may actually be counter-productive. Don't think about white bears. While reading the rest of this blog post, do not think about white bears.