Thought Blocking Paradox: What It Is And How It Affects Us

Thought blocking paradox

Try not to think about what you want to avoid thinking about. Has your partner left you? Do you have to avoid eating chocolate? You want to quit smoking? Stop thinking about it. Make sure you don’t think about it at all.

Recommending doing everything possible not to think about something you don’t want to think about is some of the worst advice you can give. The simple fact of trying to free the mind from the thought that we do not want to have makes us think about it, paradoxically.

That is the paradox of thought blocking, a strategy that, instead of achieving what we want, causes us exactly the opposite situation and with even more force. Let’s see it.

What is the paradox of thought blocking?

Let’s start by doing an exercise. Don’t think about white bears. Throughout this article, dear reader, do not think about white bears at all. Try to avoid thinking about white bears at all costs and make sure you don’t think about them by keeping an eye on any white bear-related thoughts that may come to mind.

Trying not to think about something in particular is usually a task with bad results, since in the end we end up thinking about it even more We can call this the paradoxical effects of thought suppression or, also, the paradox of the thought block. Whether we like it or not, the simple act of trying not to actively think about a specific thought is, in itself, actively thinking about that same thought, which sabotages our attempt to suppress it. In short, trying to avoid a thought makes us less able to control it.

This phenomenon is something extremely common in our lives. How many times have we tried to avoid thinking about something that worries us or scares us? For example, if we are trying to quit smoking, how many times have we tried not to actively think about smoking? And how many times have we ended up doing it, despite actively trying to avoid it? It is a technique so common and, at the same time, so little useful that science has not been able to resist demonstrating how undesirable it is.

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History of the concept

The first studies on actively blocking thoughts began in the 1980s, although Sigmund Freud himself had already gone ahead at the beginning of the century, but speaking of “repression” instead of “suppression of thoughts.” Daniel Wegner was one of the first to scientifically address the phenomenon, defining thought suppression as the deliberate act of trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts from the conscious mind.

Wegner himself relates this paradox to his theory of the ironic process in which he explains that when trying to suppress a thought, people activate two cognitive processes. On the one hand, we try to create the desired mental state, that is, one in which the idea that we do not want to think about is not found and, in addition, we occupy the mind with other unrelated ideas as distractors. But on the other hand, we have to make sure that the idea does not appear, watching to see if it comes back, and the simple fact of being aware of the “forbidden” idea makes it appear and we think about it.

Wegner’s research showed that blocking a specific and active thought usually results in thinking even more about it, giving rise to what has been called the “rebound effect.” Since this effect is just the opposite of the effects desired by the person who carries out thought blocking, not thinking about the thought or carrying out the problem behavior, this strategy has been blamed for contributing to obsessions, diet failures. , difficulties in quitting bad habits such as smoking or drinking.

It has not been difficult at all to replicate this phenomenon on an experimental level since it is enough to tell a person not to think about something for them to fall into the trap of thought blocking. No matter how much he tries, he cannot get rid of his problematic thinking, it is as if he were adding fuel to the fire, but without knowing it. No matter how much you try to make it fade, all it does is make it even stronger. Do you remember not to think about white bears? Don’t think about them…

Thus, there is general acceptance and scientific evidence that gives strength to the fact that Blocking thoughts is not a good strategy to control our mind, since it feeds intrusive thoughts. This has been related to mental disorders, especially anxiety such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental conditions in which there are recurring ideas. Asking the patient not to think about them makes him think even more, which can aggravate his condition.

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Blocking unwanted thoughts and behavior

Thought blocking is not only not a good strategy to avoid thinking about a thought or memory, but it is also not very useful when trying to avoid performing a certain behavior. For example, when you try to stop smoking, eating junk food, or doing any other behavior, you usually resort to this strategy, thinking that if you don’t think about it, you won’t want to do it as much. The problem is that the opposite effect is achieved, thinking about the behavior that has to be avoided and wanting to do it even more.

For example, if I am on a diet and I have been told not to eat chocolate, which is my favorite food, I will have to make an effort not to eat it. In order not to want to eat it so much, I will do my best not to think about it but, if I tell myself “don’t think about chocolate” Not only will I think about chocolate, but I will want to eat it more and there will be a greater risk of falling into temptation.

And this chocolate case is just what James Erskine and colleagues’ group saw in 2008. These researchers asked a group of participants to suppress thoughts related to chocolate, and then asked them to do a seemingly unrelated task. with this first instruction. After doing it, they were offered food of different types. The participants who were part of the group that had been told not to think about chocolate ended up eating much more of this candy than those in the control group.

Another experiment also by Erskine and colleagues from 2010 evaluated the effects of asking a group of smokers not to think about smoking and how this influenced the total number of cigarettes they consumed. Participants were asked to record in a diary for three weeks how many cigarettes they smoked per day. In the second week, the instructions were given: one third were asked to actively try to think about not smoking, another third were asked to actively think about smoking, and the remaining one was told nothing, with the instruction common to all. participants not to alter their normal behavior.

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Surprising as it may seem, both in the control group, which was not asked anything, and in the group that was asked to explicitly think about the idea of ​​smoking, the number of cigarettes smoked per day barely changed. Instead, it was seen that in The group that was asked to actively not think about smoking smoked more than they had during the first week of the experiment In other words, asking someone not to actively think about an avoidable behavior or the idea associated with it makes them do it even more.

Conclusions and recommendations

Since trying not to think about something makes us think about the same thing even more, it is clear that blocking thoughts is not a good technique to get rid of obsessions or unpleasant ideas, nor of behaviors to avoid. Its effects are clearly counterproductive and the best thing is to keep your mind busy with other thoughts without actively thinking about not thinking about the idea to avoid.

Whether it’s avoiding thinking about white bears, smoking, eating chocolate, or drinking alcohol, trying to avoid thinking about ideas like these by telling ourselves “don’t think about X” doesn’t help. The best thing to do, as long as it is not an obsession or pathological behavior at extreme levels (e.g., alcoholism), is to think about what you are doing, keep your mind occupied and, in case of For the unwanted idea to appear, let it pass.

Naturally, If the problem gets worse and it is impossible for us to passively get rid of the idea to avoid, the best thing to do is go to a psychologist who will offer us effective techniques to get rid of the obsession or stop doing the behavior we want to get rid of. Of all the techniques that it will offer us, there will be techniques that serve exactly what thought blocking does, that is, avoiding thinking about a specific idea, only with the advantage that you will not actually think about it. Keeping your mind busy is usually the best option.