White Bears and Other
Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control
by Daniel Wegner
Ridding unwanted thoughts is sometimes difficult. Many
methods of ridding unwanted thoughts appear attractive—repression,
suppression, ignoring them, self-distraction, and paradoxical intentions. Repression is the unconscious elimination of thoughts and
suppression the conscious attempt to rid them. “Get out of my brain you stupid
thought,” is an example of suppression. Paradoxical intentions rid thoughts by deliberately creating more.
Common unwanted thoughts include thoughts about sex, health,
death, doubts, crimes, suicide, inferiority, relationships, and bodily functions. Two excellent examples of unwanted thoughts: the urge to
pull in front of a train and irksome songs stuck in your head.
Suppression, the common sense method, often fails. Wegner claims allowing thoughts in and laughing at them, or laughing in general, is a great way to rid them. Self-distraction, thinking or doing something else, is another valuable method. Parents good at
distracting children save their sanity. Wegner fails to mention that parents must be careful, though. Non-infants often
misbehave because parents provide rewarding distracters.
Example: get on my nerves, and I’ll punish you by
distracting you with delicious ice cream. But procrastination is an unhelpful
method of self-distraction, leading to moral peril.
Absorbing distractions distract best. Intense lovemaking distracts from
burned fingers better than Muzak. Painful distracters distract from other pains. You momentarily
forget your burned fingers if you smack your funny bone. Self-distraction fails with severe pain. Licking an ice cream cone after getting hammered in
the groin does not help, nor does shooting yourself in the head with a staple
gun after slicing off your hand with a miter saw. Muddle through intense pain.
Wegner discusses that strange, splendid possession we call consciousness.
Thoughts briefly enter our consciousness, then disappear when the next thought
moves in. We usually have only
one thought at a time, but a metathought to suppress, and the thought we want to suppress, claims Wegner, both exist together. Metathoughts are thoughts about other thoughts.
Directing what resides in consciousnesses, that tiny window of our
mind, is among our most important tasks. If we pursue
distractions, or are tempted to, we must find more important tasks. Or make our more important tasks more challenging and or absorbing. If our activities create too much anxiety,
we should pursue better activities or find ways to reduce the anxiety, perhaps
dividing tasks into smaller pieces or increasing our levels of arousal—getting
indignant at a wrong, for example. Unwanted thoughts are rare in absorbing
Distractions ruin character and help us avoid painful truths. Truth evasion becomes habit. Structures become traps. Friends, media, and physical environments should be carefully chosen. The right
partner spurs new thinking, especially if she delivers well-reasoned criticism.
Becoming a hermit is an avoidance tactic, but it fails. Instead of liberating the self from unwanted thoughts, writes Wegner, isolation
multiplies unwanted thoughts. We should set up external
situations so goodness becomes an easy, attractive choice—choices "by near
remote control.” Constantly relying on will power to control thoughts often fails. Bad living causes unwanted thoughts. Rather than focusing on unwanted
thoughts, emphasis should be placed on changing our lives. Wegner suggests heavy doses of organization and
should be avoided, used only when necessary to prevent major harms.
Intriguing research suggests innuendo persuades many. “I do not think Bruce
Ventdefordo is a bucket of sludge drawn from the bottom of a vat of sludge,”
communicates the opposite.
Wegner covers some common, fascinating reasoning mistakes. Research suggests individuals ignorant on a subject
believe conclusions when only one reason appears. The “first thing that says
why” persuades novices. Example: the basketball team will win
because their small forward is better.
It takes large amounts of
counterevidence and deliberate effort to change first beliefs. Other ideas become beliefs merely because of repetition. And the first ideas individuals often read on an issue are the ideas repeated often.
Stray emotions sometimes help. A
suspicious sound may indicate a burglar. Stray emotions alert us
to alternatives. But harmful moods and harmful ideas mutually cause
each other in terrible spirals. We should not be
self-satisfied. We must search for better activities even when events go
well because we easily slip into bad habits.
Pleasurable moods should not shield us from unpleasant
facts. Research suggests depressed individuals better judge when
activities are worthless. Happy people often ignore consequences and
blindly pursue the same feel good, harmful goals.
The relationship between arousal and emotion fascinates. Adrenaline causes general arousal, but the emotion produced
depends on the individual and situation. Telling
someone a specific emotion will result from an adrenaline injection causes that emotion. The same injection, research hints, produces different emotions simply by telling the volunteer what emotions to expect. Arousal without a label disturbs. We use anxiety or nervousness as default labels. Suppressing
emotions, when a stimulus exists, leads to anxiety or even greater arousal.
But letting unwanted thoughts wander, or laughing at them, helps rid them.
Important ideas: events absorbing attention can
destroy us or others. Or both. When evil desires dominate that window of human
consciousness, horrors result. Actions suggest thoughts we barely realize or
fail to realize. Dieters using restraining tactics binge the
most. When you have unwanted thoughts, neither suppression
nor wallowing helps much. Few things interest us long-term, except what
thinking and doing makes interesting. The intuitively intriguing depends
on choices and environments. Find superb actions to do and think about.
Wegner employs a hypnotic writing style that made me stop at the end of some pages and wonder what I just read. Or maybe I was tired. But this work was worth staying up for. Recommended. (H) 1989
— book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 21, 2009