"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.”
(Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Fyodor Dostoevsky)
A young David Wegner came across this quote in a playboy magazine. two decades later, he went on to study this phenomenon extensively.
He also gave it a cute name, The Ironic Process Theory.
It’s another one of those theories that backs up what we already know, but may not have realised: Whenever you try not to think of something, you end up thinking that something more.
You’ve experienced this plenty. This is what makes you feel like jumping when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. Or perhaps at a party, attempting a serious conversation, but your eye-contact continues to fall on that massive pimple (Or is it a mole?).
This is what I love about the Ironic Process Theory. It playfully highlights our humanity. As I was Reading through some of the experiments which support the theory, I couldn’t help but smile. Here’s a couple:
"When people are asked not to think about a target word while under pressure to respond quickly in a word association task, they become inclined to offer precisely that forbidden word."
(D. M. Wegner, R. E. Erber, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 63, 903)
”Levels of arousal are inflated during the suppression of sex thoughts to the same degree that they inflate during attempts to concentrate on such thoughts”
(D. M. Wegner, J. W. Shortt, A. W. Blake, M. S. Page, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 58, 409 (1990).)
And here’s one to try at home:
Try not to think of a white bear.
Fun and Games
It’s not all fun and games, the ability to let go of repressed memories and negative thoughts is of great interest to Clinical Psychology.
The question borders on the Seussian: “How do we try not to think about what we don’t want to think about without not thinking that we don’t want to be thinking about that particular thing (and thus, in turn, thinking about it)”.
Towards the end of his life our professor, David Wegner, was asking this question too. Admittedly, he didn’t have the answers, but he did have some recommendations;
Not trying constantly to control the mind;
Accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them;
Disclosing problems rather than keeping the secret;
and, you guessed it, meditation.
David Wegner believed meditation to be one of the most effective techniques for dampening the effect of Ironic process theory.
So, meditate daily – it’s just that easy.
Now, let me repeat the favoured first instruction of well-meaning, yet apparently misinformed, meditation teachers.
…sit quietly, let go of all the thoughts that have been troubling you go – and clear the mind …
Sure, it’s O.K. as a platitude – but it’s dangerously ironic as an instruction.
Daily meditation is good.