sub specie aeternitatis

Don’t Think of a White Polar Bear

July 6, 2011

from Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

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.

This quote inspired David Schneider (a professor at Rice University) and Daniel Wegner to conduct a research experiment to test just that:  Subjects were instructed to sit in a room, alone, and think of anything but a white bear.  When they thought of the bear, they were to ring a bell.  And the results?  Schneider said:

The original white bear paper documented the fact that people can, but only for brief periods of time, suppress thoughts of white bears. But on removal of suppression instructions, people are typically flooded with the thoughts they were supposed to suppress.

Later in the study, the some subjects were told to think of the bear for five minutes before trying not to think of them and did better than the subjects who were never told to suppress white bear thoughts.  From the paper:

These observations suggest that attempted thought suppression has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy, perhaps even producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against

Just some food for thought.