Meditation, mindfulness and other tools can
help us avoid unwanted thoughts, says social
psychologist Daniel Wegner.
BY LEA WINERMAN • Monitor staff
“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.”
That observation comes from “Winter Notes on Summer
Impressions,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1863 account of his travels
in Western Europe. But the research that proved it true came
more than a century later, from the lab of social psychologist
Daniel Wegner, PhD.
Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University and
the founding father of thought suppression research, first came
across the quote more than 25 years ago.
“I was really taken with it,” he said in a talk at APA’s 2011
Annual Convention. “It seemed so true.”
He decided to test the quote’s assumption with a simple
experiment: He asked participants to verbalize their stream of
consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a
white bear. If a white bear came to mind, he told them, they
should ring a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it,
the participants thought of a white bear more than once per
minute, on average.
Next, Wegner asked the participants to do the same exercise,
but this time to try to think of a white bear. At that point, the
participants thought of a white bear even more often than a
different group of participants, who had been told from the
beginning to think of white bears. The results suggested that
suppressing the thought for the first five minutes caused it to
“rebound” even more prominently into the participants’ minds
The research, published in the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology in 1987 (Vol. 53, No. 1) initiated an entirely
new field of study on thought suppression. Over the next
decade, Wegner developed his theory of “ironic processes” to
explain why it’s so hard to tamp down unwanted thoughts.
He found evidence that when we try not to think of
something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden
thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make
sure the thought is not coming up — therefore, ironically,
bringing it to mind.
After more than a quarter century of this research, Wegner
said, he’s realized that when he explains his work, listeners
usually follow up with one question: “OK, so what do I do
about this? Is there any way to avoid unwanted thoughts?”
The topic rings true for many people, perhaps especially
because the thoughts that we often want to avoid are not
as innocuous as white bears — they might involve painful
memories or other difficult distractions.
In his APA presentation, Wegner described several strategies
that he and others have come across to help “suppress the white
bears.” They include:
• Pick an absorbing distractor and focus on that instead: In
one study, Wegner and his colleagues asked participants to think
of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear. They found that
giving the participants something else to focus on helped them
to avoid the unwanted white bears.
• Try to postpone the thought: Some research has found
that asking people to simply set aside half an hour a day for
worrying allows them to avoid worrying during the rest of their
day, Wegner said. So next time an unwanted thought comes up,
he suggested, just try to tell yourself, “I’m not going to think
about that until next Wednesday.”
• Cut back on multitasking: One study found that people
under increased mental load show an increase in the availability
of thoughts of death — one of the great unwanted thoughts for
• Exposure: “This is painful,” Wegner said, “but it can work.”
If you allow yourself to think in controlled ways of the thing
that you want to avoid, then it will be less likely to pop back into
your thoughts at other times.
• Meditation and mindfulness: There’s evidence that these
practices, which strengthen mental control, may help people
avoid unwanted thoughts, Wegner said. n
To watch a video of Wegner discussing more ways
to beat unwanted thoughts, click here.