Don’ Think That Thought!

Dan Wegner is one of my favourite psychologists.  One of his central findings is that it is difficult – impossible – to not think certain thoughts.

One of his famous experiements is to ask participants not to think about a white bear.

 

 

 

 

 

How did you get on?

In this experiment, particpants were asked to hold a pendulum steady.  In the first condition, people were told ‘don’t move!’.

This was the result:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the second condition, people were told ‘don’t move this way!’ (i.e. up and down).

This was the result:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what Wegner calls the ironic effects of the brain:

When we think, “Don’t spill this” as we carry a full cup, for example, we may trigger the very spill we wish to avoid.  When we near a precipice, in turn, and think not to fall, we often teeter toward the brink. And we are likewise vexed in sports when we find that the error we most want to overcome seems to happen recurrently.

In turn this shows the futility of trying to control our thoughts.  The act of controlling makes them more – not less – likely to occur.

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