Can’t put the thought genie back into the bottle

Photo by Flickr user kaneda99. Click for sourcePsyBlog has an excellent piece on the counter-intuitive psychology of thought suppression – the deliberate attempt to not think of something that almost invariably backfires.

The article is both fascinating from a scientific point-of-view but also important as a personal mental health resource if you’re one of the many people who intuitively think that the best way of dealing with ‘bad’ thoughts is to try and push them out of the mind.

What psychology research has shown us is that not trying to think of something makes us think of it more frequently (the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon), and that this counter-productive effect is enhanced for emotion-heavy thoughts and in people with mental illnesses where intrusive thoughts are a problem.

Psychologists often use the metaphor of noisy trains passing through the station. Thought suppression is like standing in the middle of the tracks trying to push the train back. You’re just going to get run over. Instead, people are encouraged to just wait on the platform, observe the train of thought and wait for it to pass.

The ability to act as a ‘detached observer’ to the mind’s distressing thoughts is a useful cognitive skill and one that is cultivated by mindfulness mediation, something that has increasing evidence as a useful treatment for mental health problems.

There’s lots of good research on thought suppression, much of which is covered in PsyBlog article, but this study struck me as particularly inventive:

Wegner and Gold (1995) examined emotional suppression by delving into people’s romantic pasts using a neat comparison between ‘hot flames’ and ‘cold flames’. A ‘hot flame’ is a previous partner who still fires the imagination, while a ‘cold flame’ is a previous partner for whom the thrill is gone. In theory the ‘hot flame’ should produce more intrusive thoughts so people should have more practice suppressing them. Meanwhile because the cold flame doesn’t produce intrusive thoughts, people should have less practice suppressing them.

The results revealed exactly the expected pattern: people found it harder to to suppress thoughts about cold flames presumably because they had less practice.

Link to PsyBlog on ‘Why Thought Suppression is Counter-Productive’.

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