Why Thought Stopping Doesn’t Work (And the Paradoxical Strategy That Might Work Better)


Have you ever found yourself struggling to suppress a negative thought?

Like, maybe you’re making a recording, and things are going well, and you find yourself trying your darnedest to avoid thinking about the really tricky shift coming up?

Or maybe you’re warming up on the morning of an audition, and trying really hard to stop worrying about getting dry mouth?

Or perhaps you’re on a road trip, and desperately trying to avoid thinking about Niagara Falls and Mountain Dew, because you really have to go – but the next rest stop isn’t for another 26 miles…

Whatever the situation, you’ve probably heard that trying to suppress a thought only makes it more likely that you’ll have more thoughts about that very thought. Which is often illustrated with the “white bear challenge” – where someone tells you not to think about a white bear, and then you see how long you can go before the white bear pops into your head.

And sure, that certainly sounds reasonable – but is there any truth to this? Like, is there any actual evidence that trying to suppress a particular thought leads to more thoughts about that thought? And if so, what are we supposed to do instead, if we want to minimize negative thoughts or worries, and stay in a more positive mental headspace?

There’s a study about that!

Believe it or not, there’s a study that explores this very question – and even uses the white bear! 

A team of researchers (Wegner et al., 1987) recruited 54 undergraduate students, who were randomly assigned to one of three groups – a suppression group, an expression group, and a focused distraction group.

Participants in each group were asked to spend several 5-minute sessions describing “everything that comes to mind” to a tape recorder (ha! remember those? – if you think the audio quality of your phone’s recordings is bad, here’s a great 6-minute video that will remind you how awful tape recorder recordings sounded).

Suppression

After participants’ first recording session, the experimenter gave the suppression group the following instructions:

“In the next five minutes, please verbalize your thoughts as you did before, with one exception. This time, try not to think of a white bear. Every time you say “white bear” or have “white bear” come to mind, though, please ring the bell on the table before you.”

When the five minutes were up, the experimenter popped back in and asked participants to repeat the exercise, but this time they were given permission to actively “try to think of a white bear” and again ring the bell whenever the thought came to mind.

Expression

The expression group went through the same series of 5-minute recording sessions, but their instructions were flip-flopped. Where they were asked to think of a white bar for one five-minute session, and then asked to try not to think of a white bear in their next recording session.

Focused distraction

The focused distraction group were given instructions similar to the suppression group, except that their instructions included this one little add-on: 

“Also, if you happen to think of a white bear, please try to think of a red Volkswagen instead.”

The idea being, maybe having a specific replacement thought to think about would help them shift their thoughts away from the white bear a little quicker.

So…what happened? Was trying not to think of a white bear an effective thought suppression strategy?

Results

The findings were kind of intriguing.

What’s up with those white bears?

One thing they found, was that we do indeed suck at trying not to think of white bears. On average, participants thought of a white bear ~6 times, in a 5-minute span.

A rebound effect?

However, there was a significant difference between the suppression and expression groups in terms of how often the white bear popped into their thoughts. Both when they were asked to avoid thinking about a white bear, and when they were given permission to think about a white bear.

Ok…so…what does that mean exactly, and why does it matter?

The numbers

So here are the numbers:

The suppression group was asked to suppress all thoughts of a white bear first, yet still reported 9.17 white bear thoughts in the 5-minute session. And when they were allowed to think about white bears in the next 5-minute session, they reported a whopping 34.05 white bear thoughts.

Conversely, the expression group was asked to actively think of white bears first, yet reported only 15.47 white bear thoughts (vs. 34.05). And when they were then asked to suppress all white bear thoughts, they reported just 4.13 white bear thoughts (vs. 9.17).

So in each 5-minute session, both when asked to avoid white bear thoughts and when given permission to think about white bears, the expression group reported experiencing significantly fewer thoughts of a white bear. The only difference between the groups being the order in which they were asked to suppress their thoughts.

Which suggests that there may be something of a “rebound” effect. Where trying to suppress a thought, could indeed lead to an increase in those thoughts once you stop actively trying to suppress them.

Whereas allowing yourself to engage with the thoughts for a time first, and then trying to suppress them seems to make the suppression more effective.

Which reminded me of the research on expressive writing and test anxiety.

Eh?

Expressive writing

You can read more about the performance benefits of expressive writing in this post from a while back (How to Clear Your Mind of Worries Before a Big Performance), but the gist, is that text-anxious students who wrote down their worries and negative thoughts 10 minutes before an exam scored half a letter grade higher than students who didn’t write out their worries.

Which seems to mirror the results of the white bear study, no?

It makes me wonder if maybe these two findings are related in some way. Where instead of trying really hard to suppress one’s worries and negative thoughts in the leadup to a performance and paradoxically experiencing an explosion of negative thoughts during the performance itself, it might actually be easier to stay in a more positive headspace and suppress negative thoughts onstage, if you’ve allowed yourself a bit of time to actively engage in your worries and doubts in advance.

Take action

It does sound like a pretty backwards sort of thing to do, but maybe worth a try, the next time you have a relatively low-stakes performance situation to experiment with? A studio class or mock audition for a trusted friend might be a perfect time to try out something like this.

In any case, if you do give it a try, or have already experimented with something along these lines, I’d love to hear about your experience!


References

Wegner, Daniel M.; Schneider, David J.; Carter, Samuel R.; White, Teri L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5–13. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5 

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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Comments

9 Responses

  1. Sounds very like ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris is an interesting start……….gave me an insight why CBT often does not work.

    1. Hi Ebbe – yeah, so the numbers for focused distraction were 5.94 for the suppression period (not a statistically significant difference from 9.17 for the suppression group) and 21 for the expression period (which was a statistically significant difference from the suppression group). All this to say, the focused distraction technique didn’t help much with thought suppression, but it did help to neutralize the “rebound effect,” and in that sense these participants experienced more success with minimizing white bear thoughts than the suppression group.

      It’s hard to know how compelling the red Volkswagen distraction was though – so maybe if this were a more compelling or engaging distractor, maybe this could have worked better?

  2. Thanks for your reply. Were there any numbers for a group that was only the focused distraction group – and thus neither suppressed the thought nor ruminated over it, but just let it be and instead turned its focus towards something else (whether it was a red Volkswagon or something else)?

  3. I’m surprised of these results, because for me, replacing the negative thought by a red Volgswagen or whatever else works perfectly, all the time. Difficult and demanding at first, difficult to FOCUS ON the red VW, but when you’re got used to it, definite end of worries.

  4. This makes me think why true dress rehearsals, with some “stakes” ie: important people listening, work so well, at least for me. I tend to have dress rehearsals that, often, are a complete crash and burn. I’m stressed and frequently emotionally break down (especially for solo performances). I tend to be a bit negative in these circumstances. Not saying it’s ideal, however, the performances tend to go remarkably well. I wonder if it’s this type of situation at play? The dress rehearsal is the so-to-speak permission to express the nervousness and talk through it and get it out and then the subsequent performance is the better result after the negative expression. Just good for thought.

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