Meditation, mindfulness and various other devices have the right to help us prevent undesirable thoughts, claims social psychologist Daniel Wegner.

You are watching: White bears and other unwanted thoughts

By Lea Winerman

October 2011, Vol 42, No. 9

Print version: web page 44

3 min read


Amerideserve to Psychological Association. (2011, October). Supushing the "white bears". Monitor on Psychology, 42(9).

"Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and also you will check out that the cursed thing will come to mind eextremely minute."

That monitoring originates from "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions," Fyodor Dostoevsky"s 1863 account of his travels in Western Europe. But the research study that verified it true came more than a century later on, from the lab of social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD.

Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard College and the beginning father of assumed suppression research study, initially came throughout the quote more than 25 years earlier.

"I was really taken through it," he said in a talk at"s 2011 Annual Convention. "It appeared so true."

He chose to test the quote"s presumption with a basic experiment: He asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear involved mind, he told them, they have to ring a bell. Regardless of the explicit instructions to protect against it, the participants thought of a white bear even more than when per minute, on average.

Next off, Wegner asked the participants to carry out the exact same exercise, however this time to attempt to think of a white bear. At that allude, the participants believed of a white bear even more often than a different group of participants, who had actually been told from the start to think of white bears. The outcomes suggested that suppressing the assumed for the first 5 minutes brought about it to "rebound" also even more prominently right into the participants" minds later.

The research study, published in the Journal of Personality and also Social Psychology in 1987 (Vol. 53, No. 1) initiated an entirely brand-new field of examine on believed suppression. Over the next decade, Wegner developed his theory of "ironic processes" to define why it"s so hard to tamp dvery own unwanted thoughts. He uncovered evidence that once we attempt not to think of somepoint, one part of our mind does stop the forbidden assumed, yet an additional component "checks in" eextremely so regularly to make certain the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.

After more than a quarter century of this research, Wegner shelp, he"s realized that once he defines his job-related, listeners typically follow up via one question: "OK, so what execute I carry out around this? Is tright here any means to protect against undesirable thoughts?"

The topic rings true for many civilization, maybe particularly bereason the thoughts that we regularly desire to avoid are not as innocuous as white bears—they might involve painful memories or various other difficult distractions.

In his presentation, Wegner explained numerous strategies that he and also others have come throughout to help "suppush the white bears." They include:

Pick an absorbing distractor and emphasis on that instead: In one examine, Wegner and also his colleagues asked participants to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear. They uncovered that offering the participants somepoint else to focus on helped them to stop the unwanted white bears.

Try to postpone the thought: Some study has actually uncovered that asking people to simply set aside half an hour a day for worrying permits them to prevent worrying during the remainder of their day, Wegner sassist. So following time an unwanted assumed comes up, he argued, just attempt to tell yourself, "I"m not going to think around that until following Wednesday."

Cut back on multitasking: One research uncovered that human being under raised mental load display an increase in the availability of thoughts of death—among the excellent undesirable thoughts for a lot of world.

Exposure: "This is painful," Wegner shelp, "but it deserve to work." If you permit yourself to think in controlled methods of the thing that you want to stop, then it will be less most likely to pop back into your thoughts at other times.

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Meditation and also mindfulness: There"s proof that these techniques, which strengthen psychological control, might assist people prevent unwanted thoughts, Wegner sassist.