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Thought suppression is when an individual consciously attempts to stop thinking about a particular thought. It is often associated with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is when a person will repeatedly (usually unsuccessfully) attempt to prevent or "neutralize" intrusive distressing thoughts centered on one or more obsessions. It is also related to work on memory inhibition. Thought suppression is relevant to both mental and behavioral levels, possibly leading to ironic effects that are contrary to intention.
When an individual tries to suppress thoughts under a high cognitive load, the frequency of those thoughts increases and becomes more accessible than before. Evidence shows that people can prevent their thoughts from being translated into behavior when self-monitoring is high; this does not apply to automatic behaviors, though (e.g., the skinhead scenario), and may result in latent, unconscious actions. This phenomenon is made paradoxically worse by increasing the amount of distractions a person has, although the experiments in this area can be criticized for using impersonal concurrent tasks, which may or may not properly reflect natural processes or individual differences. Ironic process theory is one cognitive model that can explain the paradoxical effect seen above. However, given the mixed evidence and commensurate with the latest research, it is suggested that such a model needs to account for individual differences. It should also note possible neurological dynamics (see, for instance, obsessive–compulsive disorder), to be considered robust.
In order for thought suppression and its effectiveness to be studied, researchers have had to find methods of recording the processes going on in the mind. One experiment designed with this purpose was performed by Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White. They asked participants to avoid thinking of a specific target (e.g. a white bear) for five minutes, but if they did, they were told then to ring a bell. After this, participants were told that for the next five minutes they were to think about the target. There was evidence that unwanted thoughts occurred more frequently in those who used thought suppression compared to those who were not. Furthermore, there was also evidence that during the second stage, those who had used thought suppression had a higher frequency of target thoughts than did those who hadn't used thought suppression; later coined the rebound effect. This effect has been replicated and can even be done with implausible targets, such as the thought of a "green rabbit". From these implications, Wegner eventually developed the "Ironic Process Theory".
To better elucidate the findings of thought suppression, several studies have changed the target thought. Roemer and Borkovec found that participants who suppressed anxious or depressing thoughts showed a significant rebound effect. Furthermore, Wenzlaff, Wegner, & Roper demonstrated that anxious or depressed subjects were less likely to suppress negative, unwanted thoughts. Despite Rassin, Merkelbach and Muris reporting that this finding is moderately robust in the literature, some studies were unable to replicate results. However, this may be explained by a consideration of individual differences.
Recent research by Geraerts, Merckelbach, Jelicic, & Smeets (2006) found that for individuals with low anxiety and high desirability traits (repressors), suppressed anxious autobiographical events initially intruded fewer times than in other groups (low, high, and high defensive anxious groups), but intruded more often after one week.[clarification needed] This difference in coping style may account for the disparities within the literature. That said, the problem remains that the cause of the paradoxical effect may be in the thought tapping measures used (e.g. bell ringing). Evidence from Brown (1990) that showed participants were very sensitive to frequency information prompted Clarke, Ball and Pape (1991) to obtain participants' aposterio estimates of the number of intrusive target thoughts and found the same pattern of paradoxical results. However, even though such a method appears to overcome the problem, it and all the other methodologies use self-report as the primary form of data-collection. This may be problematic because of response distortion or inaccuracy in self-reporting.
Thought suppression also has the capability to change our behavior. Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, and Jetten found that when people were asked not to think about the stereotypes of a certain group (e.g. a "skinhead"), their written descriptions about a group member's typical day contained less stereotypical thoughts. However, when they were told they were going to meet an individual they had just written about, those in the suppression group sat significantly farther away from the "skinhead" (just by virtue of his clothes being present). These results show that even though there may have been an initial enhancement of the stereotype, participants were able to prevent this from being communicated in their writing; this was not true for their behavior though.
Further experiments have documented similar findings. In one study, when participants were given cognitively demanding concurrent tasks, the results showed a paradoxical higher frequency of target thoughts than controls. However other controlled studies have not shown such effects. For example, Wenzlaff and Bates found that subjects concentrating on a positive task experienced neither paradoxical effects nor rebound effects — even when challenged with cognitive load. Wenzlaff and Bates also note that the beneficiality of concentration in their study participants was better optimized when the subjects employed positive thoughts.
Some studies have shown that when test subjects are under what Wegner refers to as a "cognitive load" (for instance, using multiple external distractions to try to suppress a target thought), the effectiveness of thought suppression appears to be reduced. However, in other studies in which focused distraction is used, long term effectiveness may improve. That is, successful suppression may involve less distractors. For example, Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White found that a single, pre-determined distracter (e.g., a red Volkswagen) was sufficient to eliminate the paradoxical effect post-testing. Evidence from Bowers and Woody is supportive of the finding that hypnotized individuals produce no paradoxical effects. This rests on the assumption that deliberate "distracter activity" is bypassed in such an activity.
When the cognitive load is increased, thought suppression typically becomes less effective. For example in the white bear experiment, many general distractions in the environment (for instance a lamp, a light bulb, a desk etc.) might later serve as reminders of the object being suppressed (these are also referred to as "free distraction"). Some studies, however, are unable to find this effect for emotional thoughts in hypnotized individuals when one focused distraction is provided. In an attempt to account for these findings, a number of theorists have produced cognitive models of thought suppression. Wegner suggests that individuals distract themselves using environmental items. Later, these items become retrieval cues for the thought attempting to be suppressed  (i.e. "environmental cueing theory"). This iterative process leaves the individual surrounded by retrieval cues, ultimately causing the rebound effect. Wegner hypothesizes that multiple retrieval cues not being forged explains, in part, the effectiveness of focused distraction (i.e., a reduction of mental load). This is because there may be an ideal balance between the two processes; if the cognitive demand that isn't too heavy, then the monitoring processes won't supersede it.
Individual differences may also play a role in regards to the ironic thought process.
Recently, thought suppression has been seen as a form of "experiential avoidance". Experiential avoidance is when an individual attempts to suppress, change, or control unwanted internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, etc.). This line of thinking supports Relational Frame Theory.
Dreams occur mainly during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and are composed of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations. Although more research needs to be done on this subject, dreams are said to be linked to the unconscious mind. Thought suppression has an influence on the subject matter of the unconscious mind and by trying to restrain particular thoughts, there is a high chance of them showing up in one’s dreams.
Ironic control theory
Ironic control theory, also known as "ironic process theory", states that thought suppression "leads to an increased occurrence of the suppressed content in waking states." The irony lies in the fact that although people try not to think about a particular subject, there is a high probability that it will appear in one’s dreams regardless. There is a difference for individuals who have a higher tendency of suppression; they are more prone to psychopathological responses such as “intrusive thoughts, including depression, anxiety and obsessional thinking.” Due to these individuals having higher instances of thought suppression, they experience dream rebound more often.
Cognitive load also plays a role in ironic control theory. Studies have shown that a greater cognitive load results in an increased possibility of dream rebound occurring. In other words, when one tries to retain a heavy load of information before going to sleep, there is a high chance of that information manifesting itself within the dream. There is a greater degree of dream rebound in those with a higher cognitive load opposed to those whose load was absent. With the enhancement of a high cognitive load, ironic control theory states thought suppression is more likely to occur and lead to dream rebound.
Dream rebound is when suppressed thoughts manifest themselves in one’s dreams. Self-control is a form of thought suppression and when one dreams, that suppressed item has a higher chance of appearing in the dream. For example, when an individual is attempting to quit smoking, they may dream about themselves smoking a cigarette. Emotion suppression has also been found to trigger dream rebound. Recurrence of emotional experiences act as presleep suggestions, ultimately leading to the suppressed thoughts presenting themselves within the dream. One effecting factor of dream rebound is the changes in the prefrontal lobes during rapid-eye movement sleep. Suppressed thoughts are more accessible during REM sleep, as a result of operating processes having a diminished effectiveness. This leads to presleep thoughts becoming more available “with an increased activity of searching for these suppressed thought[s].” There are other hypotheses regarding REM sleep and dream rebound. For instance, weak semantic associations, post REM sleep, are more accessible than any other time due to weak ironic monitoring processes becoming stronger.” More research is needed to further understand what exactly causes dream rebound.
- Experiential avoidance
- Expressive suppression
- Psychological trauma
- The Game: the object of this game is to avoid thinking about "The Game"
- Trauma trigger
- Wegner, Daniel M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. London: The Guilford Press.
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- Geraerts, E., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., & Smeets, E. (2006). Long term consequences of suppression of intrusive anxious thoughts and repressive coping. Behaviour Research and Therapy 44, 1451-1460.
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- Kroner-Borowik, T., Gosch, S., Hansen, K., Borowik, B., Schredl, M., & Steil, R. (2013). The effects of suppressing intrusive thoughts on dream content, dream distress and psychological parameters . Journal of Sleep Research, 22(5), 600-604. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from the PsycINFO database.
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- Wegner, D., Wenzlaff, R., & Kozak, M. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thought and dream. Psychological Science, 15(4), 232-236. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from the PsycINFO database.
Media related to Thought suppression at Wikimedia Commons
- Wegner's Mental Control Laboratory This site links to many of Wegner's thought suppression studies.