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Category: Self Control

Block Unwanted Thoughts For Good – Research Shows How

Block Unwanted Thoughts For Good – Research Shows How

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.

How Being Bad Can Raise Your Will Power

How Being Bad Can Raise Your Will Power

Could imagining yourself doing bad or good increase your will power?

Psychologists have been aware for decades of a phenomenon known as “priming.”  In which thinking about a concept can cause you to behave in ways aligned with that concept.

For example, in one study having college students complete crossword puzzles that had words such as “old” in it caused them to behave in ways more stereotypically associated with old people.  As a result, they walked down a hallway much slower than participants that filled out a neutral crossword because “old” is associated with “slow.”

It turns out that many people associate greater self-control and endurance to people who are moral.  So researchers wanted to see if thinking about morality actually increased will power and physical endurance.

In one of three experiments they had participants hold a weight in their hand to see how long they could hold it to get a measure of their strength.  Then they had the participants hold the same weight again while writing one of three stories.

One group wrote stories of themselves doing a good deed.  Another group wrote neutral stories and yet another group wrote stories of themselves doing a bad deed.

What they found was that people who imagined themselves doing good or bad deeds held the weight longer than they did before – proving that thinking about morality actually increases endurance.  Those in the neutral condition experienced no change.

In another experiment they had people hold a weight after donating to charity or keeping some money for themselves and they got similar results: those who donated were stronger than those who kept the money.

What researchers conclude is that behaving in a moral way increases will power.  People like Gandhi or Mother Theresa may not have been born with great wills.  They may have developed them through their moral actions.

They also suggest that people could use the strategy of helping others to increase their ability to resist temptation.  So a person who wants to avoid eating those donuts at work might try giving away some spare change on the way to the office.

What I take from this is that if you are thinking of doing some good in the world but are holding back because you are not sure you have the ability, you may want to think again.

It could be that the only way you’ll develop the traits needed to accomplish your goal is by setting out to achieve it in the first place.

What do you think of this research?  How might you apply it?  Please leave your comments below.

Reference to study above:

Gray, K. (in press). Moral transformation: Good and evil turn the weak into the mighty. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

How To Increase Your Will Power In 60 Seconds

How To Increase Your Will Power In 60 Seconds

Do you know of someone who has great will power?  Do you ever wish you could borrow some of their self-control when you need to resist a tempting cookie or to get yourself to the gym.

Well, recent research suggests that actually thinking about that person can give you some of their self control.

Michelle vanDellen of the University of Georgia did several experiments that show that just thinking about a person with great will power can increase your own.

In one study 36 people were divided into three groups.  One group was asked to think of a friend with good self-control.  Another group was asked to think of a friend with bad self-control.  And a third group was asked to think of a neutral person  Those that thought about a friend with better self-control persisted longer on a handgrip task that’s often used to measure a person’s self-control.  Those who thought of a friend with poor self-control did worst of all with the neutral group in the middle.

The explanation.  Thinking about a friend with good self-control makes it easier to access ideas related to self-control and to act on these ideas.  And the same is true for thinking about people with low self-control.  Thinking about them makes it easier to think about and act with less self-control.

So how can you use this information?

First, when working on a challenging goal such as losing weight spend more time with people who have great self-control.  Some of it will rub off on you.

Second, keep pictures of friends and family around you that also have great self-control.  In other studies pictures of supportive family members or friends has been shown to increase persistence.  So if you choose people who also have great self-control in addition to being supportive that may magnify the effect.

Third, in one of the experiments described in the same paper just observing people make choices that showed good or bad self-control increased or decreased the will power of observers.  So avoid watching TV or movies with people who have no self-control before getting into a situation in which you’ll be tempted.  Or at least think of people who great self-control when the film is over.

How will you use this study to enhance your life?  Please leave a comment below telling me about one way you’ll use this information.

Reference to the study quoted above:

vanDellen, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (in press). Regulatory accessibility and social influences on state self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

How Being Negative Can Get You To The Gym

How Being Negative Can Get You To The Gym

Most self-help gurus will tell you that if you want to motivate yourself to do something focus on all the benefits you’ll gain from taking action.  However, if you’re procrastinating current research suggests that a very different approach may be even more helpful.  A specific kind of negative thinking and feeling may be much more motivating than a positive feeling.

Researchers assembled 229 people with gym memberships and asked half of them to think about how much they might regret not going to the gym.  The other group was asked how much they intended to go to the gym.

They then measured how much both groups exercised after two weeks.

The group that was asked how much they would regret not exercising exercised much more than the other group.

Why might this be?

Some researchers believe that anticipated regret may be more powerful than actual regrets. And I think that may be part of the reason anticipated regrets are such powerful motivators.

So next time you are hesitating about starting an important task – whether it’s going to the gym, writing an article or getting out of bed – think of how you’ll regret NOT taking action and you just may find yourself ready to get started.

British Journal of Social Psychology 2003 Dec;42(Pt 4):495-511.
Acting on intentions: the role of anticipated regret.  Abraham C, Sheeran P.

How A Sexy Poster Can Increase Your Will Power

How A Sexy Poster Can Increase Your Will Power

There’s a whole area of study in psychology called priming.  It’s the study of how things that are often outside our awareness can influence our behavior without our knowing it.

Well, in one study of priming researchers wanted to know if just seeing the right kind of image could cause participants to think of dieting and be more resistant to “unhealthy” food items.

So they got together 4 groups of women but I’ll only discuss the two groups that mattered.  One group entered a room with three nature photos on the walls and a soda they could choose to drink or not

A second group entered the same room with three photos of fit females.

The women in both groups were asked to estimate the amount of calories in the soda.

Those who saw the pictures fit females estimated the number of calories in the soda to be much higher than those who saw the nature photos.

This is what psychologists call “counteractive construal.”  It’s a process that increases your resistance to temptation.

So as a result, the women who saw the fit female posters had greater resistance to drinking the soda.

How can you use this information to help yourself?

When trying to achieve a goal, put visual reminders of the result you want to achieve when in places you would be tempted to violate your plans.

If you want to eat healthier, put images of healthy people on the fridge (or any place else that has snacks).  If you’re a student who needs motivation to study, put pictures of people in graduation uniforms near your desk.

What kinds of pictures will you use to prime yourself to resist temptation so you can achieve your goals?  Tell me in the comments below.

Reference to study mentioned above:

Counteractive Construal in Consumer Goal Pursuit

Ying Zhang, Szu‐chi Huang, and Susan M. Broniarczyk.  Journal of Consumer Research. Volume 37, Issue 1, Page 129–142, Jun 2010

How To Increase Persistence In 60 Seconds

How To Increase Persistence In 60 Seconds

Would you like to know how to increase your persistence in just a few seconds?

Research done by Ronald Friedman and Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester shows how.

They asked two groups of people to solve an unsolvable anagram.  One group was asked to place their hands on their thighs.  The other group was asked to cross their arms.

The ‘hands on thighs’ group spent only 30 seconds on the anagram.  The ‘arms crossed’ group spent 55 seconds – nearly twice as long.

Friedman and Elliot reason that this effect may occur because over time we’ve come to associate arm-crossing with persistence.  As a result, arm crossing actually stimulates us to become persistent.

However these two researchers also caution though that crossing your arms may only produce this persistence effect in achievement situations because body position can have different meanings in different contexts.

For example, I suspect that in social situations, this arm movement may cause unwanted effects such as stubbornness or close-mindedness because that is how many people perceive arm-crossing when in a social environment.

So next time you feel a need for a persistence boost when working on a challenging project, or you’re tempted to throw in the towel when things get too tough, try crossing your arms.  This simple act may make a world of difference.

When will you use this idea?  Tell me when and how you’ll use this simple technique in the comments below.

Reference to study mentioned above:

European Journal of Social Psychology
Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 38, 449–461 (2008)

Improve Will Power In 30 Seconds With Scientifically Proven Method

Improve Will Power In 30 Seconds With Scientifically Proven Method

Would you like to know how you can boost your will power so you can resist temptation and do the “right” thing in just a few seconds?

It turns out that research into a concept called mental construal has the answer.

Construal level theory suggests that people have more will power when thinking abstractly and less will power when thinking concretely.

In one study for example, participants were put into two groups.  One group was asked to ponder why we should maintain positive relationships with others to get them to think abstractly.  The other group was asked to think about how we maintain good relationships so they’d think concretely.

Next they gave both groups an implicit associations test to see what kinds of unconscious thoughts they now had about apples and candy bars—something completely unrelated to relationships.  They did this because thinking abstractly or concretely for a few seconds tends to spill over into your thinking on the next topic.

Members of the abstract thinking group thought of apples positively and candy bars negatively.  Those in the concrete group thought of apples negatively and candy bars positively.

Next both groups were asked how much they wanted an apple or a candy bar right now.  The concrete thinkers chose the apple over the candy bar only half the time.  The abstract thinkers chose the apple 76% of the time.

So by thinking about something in the abstract for just a few seconds you can boost your will power.  Other studies have shown that thinking abstractly increases endurance and resistance to pain.

So how can you use this idea to help yourself?

Next time you are tempted to do something that will interfere with your goals, try thinking abstractly.  You can do this by thinking about why you want to achieve your goals or by thinking abstractly about anything else.

When you do you’ll find that all-of-a-sudden you’ve gained an increase in will power that will allow you to resist temptation.

Reference to study mentioned above:

Fujita K., Han H.A.  Moving beyond deliberative control of impulses: The effect of construal levels on evaluative associations in self-control conflicts
(2009) Psychological Science, 20 (7), pp. 799-804.