Running of the Elephants – Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Have you ever found yourself about to give a speech or sit an exam, and one of your friends tries to calm you down by saying, “Stop worrying … just don’t think about it!”  Does that ever work?  Not usually!  The more you try to intentionally block it from your mind, the more it wants to pop up again.

Why is that?  It seems intuitive that if you don’t want to think about something, all you need to do is to take control and block it out of your mind, right?

One of Hollywood’s better movies in recent times was “Inception”.  In one of the key early scenes, Arthur is explaining to Saito why inception is impossible,

Saito: If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?
Arthur: Okay, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants?”

This is a great little dialogue about thought suppression.  Thought suppression is the process of consciously trying to avoid certain thoughts, either by trying to replace the unwanted thought with another thought, or simply trying to repress the unwanted thought.

Our minds tend to focus on the content of a subject.  If the subject is elephants, no matter what words I put in front of it, your mind will think about elephants.  Like if I say, “I love elephants, or I say “Don’t think about elephants”, your brain hears, “blah blah blah elephants.”  And having been sensitized to the idea of not thinking about elephants, when your mind inevitably brings it up again, you’re primed to pay even more attention to it, “D’oh, I’ve just thought about elephants again … stop thinking about elephants …”.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced if your mind has already been focusing on the subject.  If you’re mind is going over and over a speech you have to give and I say, “Oh, don’t worry about that speech”, all your mind registers is, “blah blah blah SPEECH”.

Although it’s been discussed in the psychological sciences for decades, it’s only been since the late 1980’s that considerable attention has been given to the concept of thought suppression.  Despite our natural tendencies to try it or recommend it to people, the conclusion of nearly all the research is the same: thought suppression doesn’t work.

Wenzlaff and Wegner, two American psychology researchers, looked at all of the different research on thought suppression and came to the following conclusion,

“What has compelled the interest of the scientific and clinical communities is that suppression is not simply an ineffective tactic of mental control; it is counterproductive, helping assure the very state of mind one had hoped to avoid. The problem of thought suppression is aggravated by its intuitive appeal and apparent simplicity, which help mask its false promises.” [1]

I’m not really sure why we naturally gravitate to thought suppression.  Perhaps it’s part of our natural delusion of control.  Perhaps it’s a throwback from the pop-psychology assumptions that we can control our destiny, or the common myth that our mind is in control of our brain.

Whatever the reason, as time has passed, researchers are coming to understand why thought suppression is so unhelpful.  This quote from Magee and his colleagues helps to explain why:

“This shift in focus parallels advances in cognitive theories of intrusive thoughts, which suggest that having intrusive thoughts is a normative phenomenon; instead, the way an individual interprets those thoughts is expected to lead to benign versus serious outcomes … Similarly, having difficulties with thought suppression is a common experience … it is the way an individual interprets that experience that may be key. Previous discussions of thought suppression have frequently implied that people having difficulties with thought suppression often ascribe negative meaning to their difficulties.” [2]

We naturally struggle to suppress intrusive thoughts because intrusive thoughts are normal.  Trying to suppress them is like trying to suppress any other normal biological process.  Try to stop breathing for any length of time and you’ll see what I mean – it’s impossible, and trying is simply counterproductive.

The key is how we react to or feel about our thoughts.  If we feel like our thoughts might be somehow causing us harm, then our failure to stop them from bubbling up to the surface of our consciousness is going to cause us distress.  It’s a double whammy – we’re stressed because we’re expecting the negative consequences of our thoughts, and we’re distressed by our ‘failure’ to stop them.

Since it first started more than a century ago, the death toll from the famous Pamplona event, “Running of the Bulls” currently stands at 13.  Countless others have been gored and trampled.  Who are the people who get injured during the event?  Certainly not the smart ones standing behind the barriers on the edge of the streets, or the ones watching it broadcast on TV?  Only the morons who try to outrun the pack of foot-long bony skewers attached to the half-ton lumps of very cranky steak.

Similarly, the best way to manage our thoughts is to learn not to fight with them in the first place.  By non-judgmentally observing them, we can simply observe our thoughts for what they are … just thoughts.  By stepping back from our thoughts and giving them room, we find that they don’t have any real power over us.  Stepping back away from our thoughts and letting them be is the skill of defusion, one part of the process of psychological acceptance.  It’s the first step in living a life abundant in meaning and significance.

So just remember: don’t try to suppress an unwelcome thought.  Having intrusive thoughts is actually a normal process, not a sign of disease or mental weakness.  They’re not toxic or harmful, they’re just thoughts.  Give them space, like you would a charging angry bull (or elephant!)

References

[1]        Wenzlaff RM, Wegner DM. Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology 2000;51(1):59-91.
[2]        Magee JC, Harden KP, Teachman BA. Psychopathology and thought suppression: a quantitative review. Clinical psychology review 2012 Apr;32(3):189-201.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of optimism bias

“What are little girls are made of?  Sugar and spice, and all things nice.”

It sounds sweet doesn’t it?  We like to connect with these rosy little memes that warm our cockles and make us feel good about the world and ourselves.  We think of all of the examples in our own experience, which seems to confirm the saying.  We may think of a few examples that don’t quite fit, but they’re just the exception that proves the rule.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the saying or proverb is, we usually just assume it’s true.  Think of some other examples:
“Blondes have more fun.”
“Women can’t read maps.”
“White guys can’t dance.”

In all of these things, we tend to experience what psychologists call confirmation bias (Princeton University, 2014), our own mini-delusion in which we fool ourselves into believing a half-truth.  It looks right on first glance, and we can easily think of a few confirming examples, so without deeper inspection, we assume it must be true.

When Dr Leaf proclaims that,

“Science shows we are wired for love with a natural optimism bias”

the same process kicks in.  But in truth, science doesn’t show anything of the sort.  What science shows is that we learn love and fear, and our genetics influences the way we see the world, our personality.

We are prewired to LEARN to love and fear.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We require exposure to both love and to fear for these emotions to develop.  The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a study looking at the long-term psychological and physical health of children in Bucharest, one group who remained in an orphanage, and the other, a group of children that were eventually adopted.  Analysis of the cohort of the two groups of children showed that negative affect was the same for both groups.  However positive affect and emotional reactivity was significantly reduced in the institutionalised children (Bos et al., 2011).  This shows that children who lived in an institution all of their lives and given limited emotional stimulation had lower levels of positive affect (ie: love, happiness) compared to a child that was adopted.

The children in the institution did not have high positive affect because they were not shown love.  Those children who were adopted were higher on positive affect because they were shown love by their adopted parents.  Both groups were exposed to distress and fear during their time in the orphanage, so their negative affect was the same across both groups.  Thus, love and fear don’t come naturally.  They need to be learned.

Personality is “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individuals distinctive character.” (“Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition,” 2010) As Professor Greg Henriques wrote in psychology today, “Personality traits are longstanding patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions which tend to stabilize in adulthood and remain relatively fixed. There are five broad trait domains, one of which is labeled Neuroticism, and it generally corresponds to the sensitivity of the negative affect system, where a person high in Neuroticism is someone who is a worrier, easily upset, often down or irritable, and demonstrates high emotional reactivity to stress.” (Henriques, 2012) Personality is heavily influenced by genetics, with up to 60% of our personality pre-determined by our genes (Vinkhuyzen et al., 2012), expressed through the function of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in our brain (Caspi, Hariri, Holmes, Uher, & Moffitt, 2010; Chen et al., 2011; Felten, Montag, Markett, Walter, & Reuter, 2011).

So some people *ARE* natural optimists – their genetic heritage blessed them with a rosy outlook and their early life experiences cemented it in.  These naturally optimistic people, and the people who know them, are the ones who take Dr Leaf’s word as truth because they see it in themselves or their friends.  But the fact that some people are naturally wired for pessimism or a neurotic personality disproves Dr Leaf’s assertion.

Its important that Dr Leaf’s misleading meme is seen for what it is.  If we assume that we’re all pre-wired for love and optimism, then those who are pessimistic must be deficient or deviant, and the fact they can’t change must mean they are incompetent or lazy.  If we know the truth, those who are less optimistic won’t be unnecessarily judged or marginalised.

I should point out that what I’ve said isn’t a free licence to be cranky or sullen all the time.  The natural pessimist still needs to be able to negotiate their way through life, and being a misery-guts makes it hard to get what you need from other people in any business, social or interpersonal relationship.  We have the ability to learn, and the person with a neurotic personality can still learn ways of dealing with people in a positive way.

But if you naturally see the glass half-empty, don’t tell yourself that you’re abnormal, or that you aren’t good enough.  You are who you are.  Accept who you are, because while there are weaknesses inherent to having neurotic personality traits, there are also strengths, such as the enhanced awareness of deception, or protection from gullibility (Forgas & East, 2008).

A good thing to have when searching for the truth.

 References

Bos, K., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Drury, S. S., McLaughlin, K. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2011). Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 19(1), 15-24. doi: 10.3109/10673229.2011.549773

Caspi, A., Hariri, A. R., Holmes, A., Uher, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2010). Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 167(5), 509-527. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452

Chen, C., Chen, C., Moyzis, R., Stern, H., He, Q., Li, H., . . . Dong, Q. (2011). Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PLoS One, 6(7), e21636. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021636

Felten, A., Montag, C., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., & Reuter, M. (2011). Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 1(2), 109-118. doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1362-1367.

Henriques, G. (2012). (When) Are You Neurotic?  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201211/when-are-you-neurotic

Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition. (2010)   (3rd edition ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Princeton University. (2014). Confirmation bias.   Retrieved January 10, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Confirmation_bias.html

Vinkhuyzen, A. A., Pedersen, N. L., Yang, J., Lee, S. H., Magnusson, P. K., Iacono, W. G., . . . Wray, N. R. (2012). Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2, e102. doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27