The white bear effect
Confiding in friends or family, we often heard “don’t think about it”. However, Wegner’s experiments on the famous white bear effect suggest that this is the worst advice that can be given: in fact, trying to suppress thoughts can actually be counterproductive.
Advertising message This is how Fyodor Dostoevsky challenged his brother, as reported in his 1863 story Winter notes on summer impressions. This famous quote was later taken up by Wegner, Harvard professor of psychology, father of research on the suppression of thought, who intrigued by this anecdote, in 1987 decided to carry out a simple experiment (Wegner DM, 1987) to understand if this sentence had a foundation of truth. On the other hand, it is an experience common to all of us to try to remove the unpleasant thoughts that crowd our mind. Whether you are trying not to think about a traumatic event, whether you are trying not to think about our favorite food during a diet or a lost love that is making us suffer a lot.
Wegner’s experiment was very simple, a group of volunteers were seated in a room and asked to think about anything for five minutes except Dostoevsky’s famous white bear. Each participant was then given the task of ringing a bell whenever the polar bear came to mind. In a very short time a bell concert began to ring in the room, highlighting that none of the volunteers were able to suppress that annoying forbidden thought.
Subsequently, Wegner instructed the participants to “try to think of a white bear” for five minutes. At that point, the volunteers thought of a white bear even more often than another control group that had been given an inverse task, which is to try to think of a white bear first and then try not to think about it. The results suggested that the attempt to suppress thought for the first five minutes caused a “bounce” in the minds of the participants, paradoxically causing them to think about the white bear even more.
Advertising message In the following decades Wegner developed and expanded his theory on the white bear effect, called the theory of “ironic processes”. He unequivocally found that when we try not to think about something, one part of our mind actually avoids forbidden thinking, but another part tries to control our internal processes every now and then to make sure that thought does not come out, thus leading us ironically thinking about it even more.
Regarding addictions, for example, a more recent study (Erskine JA, Georgiou GJ, Kvavilashvili L., 2010) has shown how attempting to suppress thoughts about smoking first leads to a reduction in smoking, and then to witness a serious rebound effect. which leads to smoking much more.
So what are the strategies we can implement to be able to decrease the frequency with which a certain unpleasant thought occurs?
Wegner has described several methods that he and others have found effective in helping to suppress unwanted thoughts:
Wegner’s experiments on the white bear effect actually seem to go in the opposite direction from what is our common experience. How many times, confiding in our friends or family, we heard ourselves answer: “don’t think about it!”.
Are you trying to quit smoking? Forget about it. Are you trying not to eat sweets? Forget about it. Are you trying to overcome the pain of a finished relationship? Forget about it.
Wegner’s experiments suggest that although animated by good intentions, this is the worst advice that can be given. Trying to suppress thoughts can actually be counterproductive. In a constant attempt to suppress unpleasant thoughts, most people remember to think of something else, but sometimes they also remember to think about what they are not thinking just to make sure they don’t think about it: so then as if by magic, they take forms in our minds the damned pack of cigarettes, the tasty chocolate bars, the much desired old flame.
So when you have a thought you want to get rid of, instead of avoiding it and making it become an obsession, let it come and accept it calmly, distract your mind with pleasant activities, relax and face it with awareness. Only then will your white bear hibernate.