Think it's easy not to think about this bear? Think again. Image credit: longhorndave, Creative Commons

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a psychological goldmine. If you can think it, chances are he wrote about it. But as far as I know, only once has his writing directly inspired psychological research—and it was his non-fiction at that. Specifically, his reminiscences of travels to the European continent, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. One chapter in particular, “An Essay Concerning the Bourgeois,” has sparked some of the most prominent social psychology research of the last twenty years: Daniel Wegner’s studies of thought suppression.

In his essay, Dostoyevsky poses a challenge to his readers: rather than doing what writers normally ask you to do—that is, think—try not to think. And what’s more, try not to think of something quite specific – and see how far you can get. Dostoyevsky is not at all optimistic about the result. He writes, “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.”

When Wegner read this, he was intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that he decided to test it directly: would people be successful in keeping thoughts of a polar bear at bay when directed to do so? The point of the research was to look at conscious thought suppression, those moments when we deliberately try to keep from thinking about something, as opposed to unconscious thought suppression, an area made famous by Sigmund Freud in his writing on repression and apparent amnesia.

So, Wegner and his colleagues asked a group of students to do just what Dostoyevsky had suggested: not to think of a white bear. For a period of five minutes, the students were asked to report their thoughts verbally. Each time they either thought of or said the words “white bear,” they were asked to ring a bell. Then, for five additional minutes, they were instructed to think of a white bear all they wanted, and to continue ringing the bell whenever they did so. Another group received the opposite instructions: to first think of a white bear all they wanted, and then, to not think of the bear at all.

What happened next has since become one of the most widely replicated phenomena in psychology: those participants who had been instructed to avoid all thoughts of a white bear couldn’t do it. On average, they either said the words or reported thinking about the bear over once a minute. Moreover, when they were later told to think of the bear, they experienced a significant rebound effect, mentioning it much more often than any other group.

In a follow-up study, the researchers tried to help out by telling participants to think instead of a red Volkswagen each time they had the urge to think of a white bear. While the additional instructions had little influence in the suppression phase—people still couldn’t help but think of the white bear, even though they were now also thinking of the red car—they did help mitigate the subsequent rebound effect.

Since then, the ironic effects of thought suppression have been illustrated under countless circumstances and with far more candidates than white bears—pink elephants, ex-boyfriends, you name it. And the effects tend to last far longer than a five-minute laboratory sessions. Often, people will report rebounds of unwanted thoughts over periods of days and even weeks.

The phenomenon shouldn’t be at all surprising to people who have tried, for example, not to think of food when dieting (what else do you think of?) or who’ve done their very best to avoid a sensitive topic in a conversation—only to find themselves saying just the thing they had wanted to avoid. It seems that our natural tendency, whenever a topic bothers us or is in some way unwanted, is to do precisely the thing that makes us worst off: try not to think of it. And the more we try, the harder it can be, and the stronger the rebound we are likely to experience when the thought inevitably makes its way back.

Why would that be the case? The more effort we expend on keeping something from our mind, the more likely we are to be reminded of it—because at some level, we have to keep reminding ourselves not to think about it. As long as not thinking is in the back of our minds, we will be prompted to think of precisely the thing we shouldn’t be thinking about. Wegner calls this an ironic monitoring process: each time we think about a distracter topic to put off the topic we’d like to avoid (something we do consciously), our minds unconsciously search for the unwanted thought so that they can pounce on it if it makes so much as a peep. And if we are tired or stressed or distracted—or even if our mind goes silent for a moment—the unwanted thought will take the opportunity to assert itself.

We often blurt out just what we want to avoid saying. Image credit: Donata Ramonaite, Creative Commons.

It’s especially bad in social situations, when we try to avoid making mistakes that would carry some sort of social cost, such as trying not to swear or make sexual references or touch on an otherwise sensitive area of conversation. People who are asked to keep something private are more likely to mention it or allude to it in some way in a conversation. People who are asked not to think of anything sexual are more likely to slip up—and even show greater levels of physical arousal. People with eating disorders are more likely to mention food. People who have some sort of social prejudice—racism, sexism, homophobia—are more likely to say something biased when they are trying to be on their best behavior—especially if they are stressed or otherwise mentally engaged at the time.

The effects can even be physical. If we try to stop a pendulum from swinging in a specific direction, we may find it swinging in just the way we tried our best to avoid—especially if we are told to count backward from 1000 in threes. Athletes who concentrate too hard on avoiding a certain error may find themselves making just that error at the most inopportune of times (in golf, the effect even has a name: the yips). And if you are worried about not being able to fall asleep? Good luck trying to get to sleep. Dostoyevsky’s polar bear, it seems, just won’t let us go.

But, as it turns out, the news does get better. We may not always be at the mercy of the white bear. 25 years after Wegner’s original studies, further research has found ways we can keep—or at least, help—unwanted thoughts from resurfacing precisely when they shouldn’t. If we devote time and mental resources to avoiding a topic—and especially if we become absorbed in something else—we can successfully keep it at bay. If we practice focused self-distraction, or try to think intently about one specific topic that isn’t the topic we want to avoid, we will also be much more successful than if we let our minds wander without a focused purpose. If we avoid stress and other mental load, we are more likely to be in control of our thoughts. We can also practice techniques of mindfulness, meditation, focused breathing, and attention training (i.e., repeated practice of directing our attention toward specific targets and away from others), all of which allow us to be in better control of our minds more generally. And most interesting of all, if we deliberately try to think of what we want to avoid, we may find ourselves better able to avoid it down the line—a tactic that is known as exposure or habituation in anxiety and phobia research.

Dostoyevsky was right. If we pose as our task the act of not thinking about a polar bear, the cursed thing will indeed jump out at us from around every corner. The worst thing we can possibly do if we don’t want something to bother us is to try to avoid it. But if we take a different tack, acknowledging it, embracing it, confronting it, or if we learn to focus our minds on other, more productive lines of thought—through a positive process of actively trying to think of something rather than trying to avoid something else—we are much more likely to learn than the bear is not as powerful as once thought. It may be big and scary, but our minds have the potential to be even bigger and scarier if only we recognize the proper approach.