We all do it.
We try to wish our thoughts away. When our mind turns to a stressful work situation, a craving for a cigarette, or a fantasy we shouldn’t be having, we immediately try to remove the thought from the gray matter of our brains. We start a random conversation with the person next to us, we concentrate harder on a work assignment, or we put our index fingers in our ears, and sing, “La la la la, I can’t hear you!”
Consider every long song you hear on the radio. How many begin or end with the lyrics, “I can’t get you out of mind”? The human brain is conditioned to obsess — its negative bias makes us worry and fret. Despite our valiant efforts to shift our thoughts, they follow us into the shower and to work meetings.
The Untamed Thought
It’s time to accept the good/bad news: Thought suppression doesn’t work. The harder you try to eliminate something from your mind, the more likely it will stalk you.
A 1943 study published in the Social Science Research Council Bulletin, for example, found that people instructed to avoid making color associations with stimulus words were unable to stop the associations, even when threatened with shock for doing so.
More recently, Gordan Logan and Carol Barber published a study in the Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, detailing an experiment to determine whether a stop-signal procedure is sensitive enough to detect the presence of inhibited thoughts. Their results showed that the stop-signal can, in fact, pick up on inhibited thoughts, even when a person is immersed in a complex task.
The White Bear Study
By far the most famous and fascinating study on thought suppression was the one led by Daniel Wegner in 1987, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Wegner, a social psychologist, wanted to test a quote he came across in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Suppression,” which said, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Wegner conducted an experiment where he asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while not thinking of a white bear. Every time a white bear popped into their thoughts, they were to ring a bell. How many times did the participants ring a bell? On average more than once per minute. That’s a lot of bears.
They then did the same exercise but were asked to think of a white bear. Interestingly enough the group that was originally told not to think of a white bear had far more white-bear thoughts than the group that was never given the first instructions. Apparently the act of suppressing the thought in the first exercise stimulated the brains of the folks in the first group to think of white bears even more often.
Strategies for Unwanted Thoughts
From that study, Wegner went on to develop his theory of “ironic processes” that explains why it’s so hard to tame unwanted thoughts. He conceded that when we try not to think of something, part of our brain cooperates while the other part ensures the thought won’t surface, thereby causing the thought to be even more prominent. While presenting his theory to audiences across the country, people would ask him, “Then what do we do?” In response, he compiled a few strategies to tame unwanted thoughts. Among them:
- Choose a distractor and focus on that. If you’re given two things to think about, your concentration is fractured, and will give your brain a small break from focusing on the unwanted thought. For example, think of a white bear and a zebra at the same time and see what happens.
- Postpone the thought. Set aside an “obsession time,” whereby you allow yourself to think about the forbidden thought all you want. Theoretically, this frees up your other minutes. I found the strategy helpful for mild-to-moderate ruminations, but not with severe.
- Cut back on multitasking. Studies consistently show that multitaskers make more mistakes. However, Wegner asserts that multitasking also leads to more unwanted thoughts. More specifically, his studies show that an increased mental load increases thoughts of death.
- Think about it. Like the “postpone the thought” strategy, this is a form of exposure therapy where you allow yourself to face your fear in a controlled way. According to Wegner, when you allow yourself the freedom to think the thought, your brain doesn’t feel obligated to check in on removing it, and therefore doesn’t send it to your consciousness.
- Meditation and mindfulness. Whenever possible stay in the present moment, connect with your breath, and try to calm yourself. However, don’t make the white bear angry by forcing meditation and mindfulness.
The next time a white bear or any other unwanted thought pops into your noggin, don’t fight it. Consider its soft fur, sharp claws, or clumsy run.
Thought suppression doesn’t work. May this truth set you free.