Syndicate content

cognitive control

The things we do: Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Don't Think sign, LondonA colleague of mine recently told me a story about a friend of hers with a very long beard who was asked one day, “How do you sleep with all that hair?”  The man, who had never given it much thought, shrugged at the question. However, he later confessed to my colleague that since the question was posed he was losing a lot of sleep.
 
This man has fallen into a common mental trap: once a thought occurs to you, it’s very difficult to suppress it, and trying to suppress it may make the thought stronger.
 
This mental trap has a long-running history in our social consciousness.  Leo Tolstoy once said he tried to play a game in which he would, “get into a corner and endeavor, but could not possibly manage, not to think of the white bear.”  This was later echoed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky who lamented that “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. So how is it to be done?  There is no way it can be done…"
 
These observations would later inspire social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD at Harvard University. Wegner is considered to be the founding father of thought suppression research, and was inspired to look into thought suppression after reading Dostoyevsky's quote more than 25 years ago.