Try Not to Think About This Story

Find out why you can't help thinking about the things you're trying to get off your mind.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published on September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on November 19, 2015

It's a particularly vexing variant of Murphy's Law: The very thing
that you don't want to think about--money worries when you're trying to
sleep, a cigarette when you're trying to quit--persistently pops into
your head. Psychologist Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., says that the effort to
restrict thought is itself to blame: "Trying to control your mind can
produce the very state you are trying to avoid."

Such perversity may be the product of what Wegner, a professor at
the University of Virginia, calls the theory of ironic mental control
processes. While one part of our brain searches for a distraction from
unwanted cognitions, another checks to make sure that the taboo thought
isn't intruding. Usually, the first system--called the "intentional
operating process"--works in tandem with the second, dubbed the "ironic
monitor." During times of stress, however, the operating process may be
overpowered by its complement, bringing all the things we don't want to
think about into consciousness.

The solution, says Wegner, is to give up trying to control your
thoughts, especially when you're under stress. Better, he says, to alter
your environment to create the mood or thoughts you want. "If I'm
depressed, sitting by myself and trying to think cheerful thoughts will
almost certainly fail," says Wegner. "But if I go to a party and I'm
surrounded by people laughing and talking, it won't be so difficult to
feel happy."