Have you ever wanted to stop thinking about something but found you just couldn’t get that thought out of your head? Well you are not alone.
In many studies in which people were asked to NOT think about something like a white bear for a period of time, later their thoughts about white bears would multiply.
This phenomenon is called Post Suppressional Rebound. And the most prevalent theory to explain it is called “ironic processing theory.” According to this theory the act of suppressing a thought causes your mind to monitor how well you are suppressing the thought. As a result you end up thinking the thought to see how well you are suppressing it.
One problem with this theory is it gives you no way to solve the problem of having unwanted thoughts.
However, some recent research conducted by Forester and Liberman has come up with a very different theory to explain this and a theory that you can actually use to stop thinking about something today.
In one of the studies 80 undergraduate students at the University of Wurzberg were divided into three groups. The members of each group were asked to try to try NOT to think of a white bear for 5 minutes and to ring a bell every time they had a thought of a white bear.
However, the members of each group were given different instructions BEFORE they were given this task.
One group was told that thinking of a white bear means you are motivated to think of white bears (high motivation group). And that for example, smokers who keep thinking of smoking have a high motivation to smoke.
Another group was told that people who think of white bears during the task have a low motivation to think of white bears (low motivation group). They were also told that smokers who fail to suppress thoughts of smoking have a low motivation to smoke.
A third group was not given any additional instructions for the task (no attribution group).
After all three groups completed the first five minute exercise, they were given another task.
This time they were to verbalize their thoughts for 5 minutes and were free to think of anything they wanted including white bears. They were also asked to ring the bell each time they thought of white bears.
So what happened to the three groups?
As expected the group not given additional instructions and the group told that thinking of white bears means you are motivated to think of white bears thought about them a lot more during the second task. In fact, both groups almost doubled their thoughts of white bears when they were allowed to think about anything they wanted after having earlier suppressed thoughts of white bears.
However, the group told that thinking of white bears means you are NOT motivated to think of white bears (low motivation group) experienced a reduction in thoughts of white bears. They thought about them half as often as they did before – averaging only 4 thoughts per person.
What does the fact that the low motivation group reduced their thoughts of white bears on the second task tell us?
According to the researchers people make conclusions about their motivation based on their behavior. If you find suppressing a thought difficult, you may assume that this means you are motivated to think the thought. And this assumption causes you to think it more.
And because most people make this inference when trying to suppress thoughts, this conclusion is very common.
However, if you are told that thinking about a thought means you are NOT motivated to think of the thought you are able to think about it less often.
So how is this useful?
The researchers mention that people who are trying to stop addictive or compulsive behavior will often have many thoughts about those behaviors throughout the day. And because they assume that thinking about these behaviors means they want to engage in them, they may have a more difficult time maintaining changes than if they knew that having thoughts about something does not necessarily say anything about your motivation.
However, I think this insight is useful even if you don’t have an addictive or compulsive behavior. Most of us want to change something about our lives or have something that tempts us.
With the knowledge that tempting thoughts does NOT mean you really want to succumb to temptation, you may be more likely to stick to your commitments if these thoughts crowd your mind.
And if you ever have a painful thought you’d like to stop, you now know you can reduce its frequency by merely being aware that failure to block the thought does not mean you want to think the thought.
Reference to the study:
J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.