White Bears – The Paradox of Mental Suppression




White bear

Whatever you do, don’t think of a white bear. Go on, close your eyes, relax, but don’t think of a white bear… So, what happened? Most likely, you were overwhelmed by thoughts of a white bear. This mini-experiment highlights the fascinating paradox of thought suppression. That is, once we explicitly try not to think of something, we find that we think about it all the time. Indeed, in its worse forms, the failure of thought suppression mars the minds of those suffering from various psychological disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and even depression.

In a classic psychology book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, Professor Daniel Wegner reviews research on the uniquely human ability to control our thoughts, as well as why our attempts to do so often fail. Drawing from one of Tolstoy’s short stories in which he describes a peer’s challenge to stand in a corner and not think of a white bear, Wegner used a white-bear task in a Harvard psychology laboratory to test the effectiveness of intentional thought suppression. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In both conditions, participants were instructed to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes. In one condition, participants were told that during their articulation, they could think about a white bear. In the other condition, participants were told that they were not allowed to think of a white bear during articulation. All participants were to press a button if they thought of a white bear, and their verbalizations were recorded, and the number of white bear acknowledgments were counted. While participants in the suppression condition mentioned the white bear less than people in the express condition, all participants pressed the button at about equal rates, indicating that the goal to suppress the thought was hardly effective.

Perhaps most interesting though, was what happened when subjects in the suppression condition subsequently performed another stream of consciousness session, however this time were told that they were allowed to think of a white bear. Now, these participants who originally attempted to suppress the white bear thought spent an overwhelming amount of time discussing white bears and pressing the button, significantly more so than the group that was allowed to think of a white bear without any previous suppression. It appeared that suppression of a thought led to its subsequent overindulgence.

This rebound effect has interesting implications for various situations in which we try to control our thoughts and behaviors via suppression. For example, imagine a dieter who swears off sweats, constantly reminding herself, “don’t eat that.” Based on Wegner’s study, it seems that if she later allows herself a small cheat, like maybe some candy on Halloween, she may spiral into an over-indulgence in pro-sweet thoughts and behaviors, thwarting her original goal to lose weight. Or, perhaps for an individual with OCD, reminding oneself not to think about an obtrusive thought may backfire. According to Wegner, a better tactic may be to engage in focused distraction, as opposed to obsessing over what one should not do. Indeed, Edgar Allen’s short story, The Telltale Heart, highlights this principle rather nicely: Don’t drive yourself mad with ruminations regarding what you seek to avoid addressing; doing so may simply lead to its manifestation.

References

Wegner, D. M. (1994). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. The Guilford Press: NY, New York.

Wegner, D., Schneider, D., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5

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  • Lisa

    I’m assuming obtrusive thoughts are thoughts like, “I need to drive my car into oncoming traffic” or “I’ve said something I know I’m going to hell for?” I try not to get obssessive because the more I think those thoughts, the more anxious I get and the more they comsume me.

    Is “forced distraction” a controlled way to allow yourself to think those kind thoughts without provoking a lot of anxiety? The technique wouldn’t be too useful if there was still anxiety associated with the thoughts. I guess I don’t really understand what “forced distraction” is, so I don’t know how to try it to see if it helps.

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Meghan Meyer, PhD (c)

Meghan Meyer, PhD candidate, studies social cognitive neuroscience at University of California-Los Angeles. Prior to joining UCLA, she worked on behavioral and brain imaging studies in the Stanford University Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, and completed her M.A. in cognitive science, with a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, from Ecole Normale Superieur, in Paris, France. When she is not in the lab designing studies and analyzing data, she enjoys writing about scientific findings and their broader impact for general audiences.
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