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Wegner’s Dream: the Effect of Suppression of Thoughts

The suppression of thoughts produces a rebound of them, in such a way that they are impossible to eliminate.

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In the 1980s, Harvard University conducted an experiment that sought to ascertain the effect of the suppression of thoughts. It was carried out by the American social psychologist and professor at the University, Daniel Wegner. And he did it based on an anecdote narrated by Leon Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century with a white bear.

The results of the experiment showed that suppression of thoughts – or rather, attempts to suppress thoughts directly – is counterproductive. Thoughts come back to our mind again and again, consciously, but also through dreams. There is a rebound of repressed thought or memory. Wegner called it a bimodal ironic mind control mechanism.

Tolstoy and the suppression of thoughts

Wegner’s experiment on suppression of thoughts was based on a well-known anecdote by the writer Leon Tolstoy. Tolstoy related that he had to go through a test in order to enter the circle of friends of his older brother. They told him he had to sit in a corner and he could not move from there until he stopped thinking about a white bear.

Poor Tolstoy did not get it and he was there for hours. The more he tried to suppress thoughts related to a white bear, the more times he turned his mind to visualize it. The image of the white bear came back again and again. The more he struggled to try to repress that thought, the white bear struggled even harder to reappear.

“Try to impose the task of not thinking about a polar bear and you will see the damn animal every minute”.

-León Tolstoi-

The experiment

Daniel Wegner’s experiment based on this fact had several phases. In the first, participants were informed that during the following five minutes they were free to think about what they wanted. They only had one limitation: not to think about a white bear.

They were asked to ring a bell during that time if the white bear appeared in their thoughts, even if they tried not to think about it. The participants did not stop ringing the bell during the five minutes of the experiment. The subjects rang the bell repeatedly at intervals of less than one minute. That is to say, the more they tried not to think about the white bear, it returned with more intensity to be visualized in his head.

In a second phase, the participants were asked to write their thoughts before going to sleep. Half of the group were instructed to write all thoughts except for those that had to do with a particular person they liked or found enjoyable. They were given precise instructions to even suppress thoughts about that person.

The other half of the group were asked to include that person in their writing and even to write their initials. Subsequently the subjects’ dreams were analyzed, in total 295 students participated in the experiment. The subjects who repressed – they tried to avoid – the thought about a person in particular dreamed about it almost twice as many as those who included the person in their thoughts.

The results of the experiment

The conclusions drawn from Wegner’s experiment were replicated in other similar studies with identical results. The suppression of thoughts produces a mental return to them. In this way, we talk about a strategy that is not only ineffective in eliminating thoughts, but is also counterproductive.

Wegner called this effect Bimodal ironic mind control mechanism. Subsequently it has been called in psychology as a post-suppression rebound effect. It seems that one part of our brain works intentionally and consciously, while another part does it under processes of involuntary supervision from the unconscious. The unconscious vigilant party returns to the intentional part the guarded thought and produced the paradox of the constant visualization of the unthought object.

A better use of the white bear

The results of Wegner’s experiment helped introduce the concept of white bear in a different and much more practical sense. It is very effective to handle intrusive thoughts of any nature the fact of trying to direct the focus of consciousness towards another interest.

Thus, it has been proven that thought does not tend to return to the focus of consciousness,that is not deleted, only replaced by another. When recurrent thoughts occur they should not be repressed. Knowing that this does not work is very important when handling intrusive thoughts. The next time you have a recurring thought, just try to replace it, for example, with a white bear.

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