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You know how you try to push out a rude, intrusive thought as you sit down to work or do the laundry, or read a book to your kids? Yeah, well try not to do that. On the UK site, PSYBLOG, I found an interesting article about “how pushing a thought out of consciousness can bring it back with a vengeance.” Per the article:

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 from 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?) to a near-constant obstacle to everyday life. 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.

In the study that kicked off research in this area Professor Daniel Wegner and colleagues investigated the effects of thought suppression (Wegner et al., 1987). 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.

This effect has subsequently been replicated by other researchers using different types of experiments and appears to be relatively robust (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). 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. It has been dubbed the ‘post-suppression rebound effect’ and may well be crucial to many aspects of our everyday experience.

To continue reading the article, click here.

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