The Science of Success

How we can all achieve our goals

How You Are Sabotaging Your Self-Control

Why thought suppression is a bad way to deal with temptation.

Have you ever tried to lose weight by just not thinking about food? How about trying to play it cool and stop yourself from calling (or emailing, or texting) your love interest by blocking out all thoughts about that person? Ever try to quit smoking by trying not to think about smoking? Did it work? I'll bet it didn't. And it's really not your fault that it didn't.

Thought suppression is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a very commonly used strategy - people often try to block out or put the lid on unwanted thoughts and feelings, in order to control their influence. Dieters try to suppress thoughts of tempting snacks, alcoholics suppress their desire to drink, stressed-out workers suppress their feelings of anxiety, and smokers suppress the thought of cigarettes when trying to quit.

On the other hand, thought suppression is not only very, very difficult, but it works only very briefly, and has some very nasty unintended consequences. Suppression has often been shown to increase the frequency of the unwanted thoughts you were trying to rid yourself of, once the period of active suppression is over. Suppress thoughts of smoking, and the thoughts come rushing back with even greater force once you let your guard down. But does this unintended consequence actually lead to more smoking? Are you actually worse off in terms of quitting than when you started?

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Yes, you are. In a new study, undergrads who smoked at least a half-pack a day on average were asked to keep track of their smoking for several weeks. For all of Week 2, some of the students were asked to try to suppress any and all thoughts about smoking. Not surprisingly, they smoked significantly fewer cigarettes during Week 2 than non-suppressers. But during Week 3, when these students were no longer required to suppress thoughts of smoking, they smoked significantly more cigarettes than non-suppressors!


While they were at it, the researchers who conducted this study looked at students' stress levels across all three weeks. Not surprisingly, suppressors reported a dramatic rise in stress during the week they were suppressing (while non-suppressors stress levels remained unchanged). So not only does the thought-suppression strategy backfire, it feels terrible while you are doing it.


So how can we deal with unwanted thoughts more successfully, in ways that don't end up actually diminishing our willpower? I've written about this in previous posts, but here are two suggestions:


1. Don't suppress, replace. Decide in advance what you will think about when a thought about smoking, snacking, or hitting "redial" pops into your mind. When you find yourself thinking about how yummy a candy bar would be right now, try replacing that thought with one that focuses on your health and weight-loss goals (e.g., "It feels better to fit into my skinny jeans than it does to wolf down chocolate-covered nougat.")


2. Don't suppress, plan. Creating an if-then plan is an easy and effective way to deal with temptations. You don't need to block out the thoughts - what you really need is to learn how not to act on them. By planning on exactly what you will do, in advance, when the tempting thought occurs, it becomes far easier to stick to your goals. For instance, when thoughts about smoking occur, plan to chew gum, or step outside for several long deep breaths of fresh air. Whatever you plan to do, it will disrupt the connection between the thought and giving in to the temptation, and over time, the thoughts will fade all on their own.

It's almost never a good idea to put a lid on your thoughts and feelings. It may feel like it's working in the short term, but soon you'll find yourself right back where you started - surrounded by candy wrappers, and wondering why he hasn't returned your three dozen phone calls.

 

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

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