Thought block paradox: what it is and how it affects us

Try not to think about what you want to avoid thinking about. Has your partner left you? Should you avoid eating chocolate? Do you want to quit smoking? Stop thinking about it. Make sure you don’t think about it at all.

Recommending doing your best not to think of something you don’t want to think about is one of the worst advice you can give. The simple act of trying to free the mind from thinking it doesn’t want to have makes us think, paradoxically.

It’s the paradox of blocking thoughts, A strategy which, instead of achieving what is planned, just leads us to the opposite situation and even more strongly. Let’s see.

    What is the thought blocking paradox?

    Let’s start by doing an exercise. Don’t think of polar bears. Throughout this article, dear reader, don’t think of polar bears at all. Try to avoid thinking of polar bears anyway and make sure you don’t think about them, watching for polar bear ideas that you might think of.

    Trying not to think of something in particular is usually a poor job, because in the end you end up thinking about it more.. We can call this the paradoxical effects of thought suppression or, also, the thought blocking paradox. Like it or not, the simple act of trying not to actively think about a particular thought is, in and of itself, active reflection on that same thought, which sabotages our attempt to suppress it. In short, trying to avoid in a thought makes us less able to control it.

    This phenomenon is something very common in our lives. How many times have we tried to avoid thinking about something that worries us or scares us? For example, if we are trying to quit smoking, how many times have we tried not to actively think about smoking? And how many times have we ended up doing it, when we are so actively trying to avoid it? It is such a common and at the same time so useless technique that science has been unable to resist proving how much it is not recommended.

    Concept history

    The first studies on active thought blocking began in the 1980s, Although Sigmund Freud himself has already advanced at the turn of the century, but speaking of “repression” rather than “suppression of thoughts”. Daniel Wegner was one of the first to tackle the phenomenon scientifically, defining thought suppression as the deliberate act of trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts from the conscious mind.

    Wegner himself relates this paradox to his ironic process theory in which he explains that by trying to suppress a thought, people activate two cognitive processes. On the one hand, we try to create the desired mental state, that is, a state in which the idea that we do not want to think is not found, and in addition, we occupy the mind with other unrelated ideas in the form of distractors. But on the other hand you have to make sure that the idea does not appear, to see if it comes back, and the simple fact of being aware of the “forbidden” idea makes it appear and you think about it.

    Wegner’s research has shown that blocking out a specific, active way of thinking usually leads to more thinking about it., Giving rise to what has been called the “rebound effect”. As this effect is just the opposite of the desired effects of the person performing the thought blocking, not reflecting on the thought or not realizing the problematic behavior, this strategy has been to blame for contributing to the obsessions, failures in them. diets, difficulty quitting bad habits like smoking or drinking.

    It was not at all difficult to reproduce this phenomenon on an experimental level because it is enough to tell a person not to think of something to fall into the trap of blocking the thoughts. No matter how hard he tries, it’s not his problematic thinking, it’s like he’s throwing firewood at her, but not knowing it. No matter how hard you try to make it go away, all you get is that it has even more strength. Do you remember not having thought of polar bears? Don’t think about them …

    So there is widespread acceptance and scientific evidence that gives it strength blocking thoughts is not a good strategy to control our mind, As it feeds intrusive thoughts. This has been linked to mental disorders, particularly anxiety like post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental conditions in which there are recurring thoughts. Asking the patient not to think of them makes them think even more, which can make their condition worse.

      Block unwanted thoughts and behaviors

      Blocking out thoughts is not only a good strategy to avoid thinking about a thought or memory, but it also doesn’t help much when trying to avoid performing a certain behavior. For example, when trying to quit smoking, eating junk food, or engaging in any other behavior, you usually resort to this strategy, thinking that if you don’t think about it, you won’t feel as eager. to do. The problem is that the opposite effect is obtained, by thinking about the behavior to avoid and being even more eager to do it.

      For example, if I am on a diet and I have been told not to eat chocolate, which is my favorite food, I will have to make an effort not to eat it. In order not to be so impatient to eat it, I will do my best not to think about it but, if I say to myself “don’t think about chocolate” not only will I think of chocolate, but I will want to eat more – and there will be more risk of falling into temptation.

      And this chocolate case is exactly what the group of James Erskine and colleagues saw in 2008. These researchers asked a group of participants to suppress thoughts related to chocolate, and then were asked to apparently do a task. unrelated to this first instruction. After doing so, they were offered foods of different kinds. Participants who were part of the group who were thought not to think of chocolate ended up eating significantly more of this sweet than those in the control group.

      Another experiment also conducted by Erskine and colleagues in 2010 evaluated the effects of asking a group of smokers not to think about smoking and how this influenced the total amount of cigarettes they consumed. Participants were asked to write in a journal for three weeks the number of cigarettes they smoked per day. In the second week, the instructions were given: a third were asked to actively try not to smoke, another third were asked to actively think about smoking, and the rest did not say anything. behaviour.

      As surprising as it may sound, both in the control group they were not asked anything, and in the group they were asked to explicitly think about the idea of ​​smoking, their amount of cigarettes smoked per day just changed. Instead, we saw that in the group in which they were asked not to actively think about smoking smoked more than they did during the first week of the experiment. In other words, asking someone not to actively think about a behavior to avoid or the idea associated with it makes you do it even more.

      Conclusions and Recommendations

      Since trying not to think of something makes us think even more, it is clear that blocking out thoughts is not a good technique to get rid of obsessions or unpleasant ideas, nor of behaviors to avoid. Its effects are clearly counterproductive, and maybe it’s keeping your mind busy with other thoughts without actively thinking about not thinking about the idea to avoid.

      Whether it’s avoiding thinking about polar bears, smoking, eating chocolate or drinking alcohol, trying to avoid thinking about such ideas by saying to yourself “don’t think X” do not. does not work. The best thing to do, as long as it’s not an obsession, would even be pathological behavior at extreme levels (for example, alcoholism) is to think about what is being done, to keep the mind busy and in case of unwanted idea. appearing, let it pass.

      Of course, if the problem goes further and it is impossible for us to passively get rid of the idea to be avoided, the best thing to do is to go to a psychologist who will offer us effective techniques to get rid of our obsession or stop doing the behavior we want to get rid of. Of all the techniques that will offer us, there will be techniques that serve just what the blocking of thoughts is done, that is to say to avoid thinking of a particular idea, only with the advantage of not think it. Keeping your mind busy is usually the best option.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Abramowitz, JS, Tolin DF and Street, GP (2001). The paradoxical effects of suppressing thought. Clinical Psychology Review, 21: pages 683-703.
      • Erskine, JAK (2008). Resistance may be unnecessary: ​​investigate the rebound in behavior. Appetite, 50, 415-421.
      • Erskine, JAK and Georgiou, GJ (2010). Effects of thought suppression on eating behavior in restricted and unrestricted canteens. Appetite, 54: pages 499 – 503.
      • Erskine, JAK, Georgiou, GJ and Kvavilashvili, L. (2010). I suppress, therefore, I smoke. Psychological Sciences, 21: pages 1225-1230.
      • Freud, S. (1990). The psychopathology of everyday life. London: Norton. (Original work published in 1901)
      • Wegner, DM (1989). Polar bears and other unwanted thoughts. New York: Viking / Penguin.
      • Wegner, DM (1994). Ironic mind-control processes. Psychological review, 101: pages 34-52.
      • Wegner, DM, Schneider, DJ, Carter, S. and White, T. (1987). The paradoxical effects of the suppression of thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53: pages 5-13.

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