The answer is what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process"—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion the individual is trying to suppress. Yes, your brain is actually nagging you.
In their initial experiments, Wegner and his colleagues instructed one group of participants not to think of a white bear while they performed other tasks. A second group was instructed to think of white bears and then not to think of them. Interestingly, the first group, which tried to keep the white bear at bay, thought about them more than once a minute! And the second group thought about them more when they were trying to suppress white-bear thoughts than when they were told to think about them.
In plain language: Trying to suppress an intrusive thought is akin to putting out a Welcome sign and inviting it to stay awhile. You may find this disconcerting—I certainly do, because I like to pretend I have complete control over my thoughts—but we probably just need to suck it up and face how much of what we think is really automatic and unconscious. (I’m not even going into unconscious “primes” and how they shape our thoughts.)
White bears, it turns out, aren’t our only problem—there’s also the way the brain deals with unfinished business.
You know how it goes: Instead of feeling content about all that you’ve accomplished, the thing you didn’t do (or failed to finish) ends up dogging you all day and night. This is called the Zeigarnik effect, after the psychologist who discovered it in a series of experiments in 1927 and whose results have been replicated many times since. Zeigarnik and her colleagues instructed participants to assemble jigsaw puzzles until they finished but then deliberately interrupted some of them. Even though these people were given other tasks to complete so that they’d be distracted from the unfinished goal, they thought about the incomplete puzzle twice as often as anything else. Telling them not to think about it didn’t help. Those who completed the puzzle, however, didn’t think about it all—there was no need for their minds to remind because the task was complete.
The bottom line? The unconscious mind is a noodge, plain and simple.
The evolutionary advantage of this pushiness is pretty clear: The mind wants us to get done what needs to be done. Bag that caribou! Build that community! Alas, our brain is still doing it in the 21st century, and it’s keeping some of us up at night.
What to Do About Your Nagging Brain
Research suggests a number of strategies—not yet scientifically proven—for getting rid of white bears and getting around the Zeigarnik effect:
1. Invite the white bear in. This suggestion comes from Daniel Wegner himself and while it seems counterintuitive, it does work: Make the intrusive thought intentional, thus bringing it into full consciousness. Say it out loud or write it down. If you’re prone to rumination, talk out your intrusive thoughts with close friends (or a therapist).
2. Assign yourself a "worry time." Some people can manage troubling thoughts by worrying about them consciously. You can choose a time of day to tackle these thoughts or decide that 10 or 15 minutes of worrying is all you need. You may want to write your concerns down—seeing them in black and white will bolster your awareness—so you can begin to process what you can and need to do about them.
3. Immerse yourself in an activity. Plenty of research shows that simply distracting yourself won’t stop intrusive thoughts but getting into “flow”—doing something which engages you so completely that you “lose” yourself in it —will. Any activity that you genuinely connect to—from knitting to playing the piano, practicing a sport or gardening or baking—will do it. Again, whatever you choose must have a high level of engagement so you are actively involved, not simply distracted. Watching television or multitasking to “take your mind off things” is doomed to failure.
4. Make a plan. Research on unfinished business by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister revealed that simply making a plan—without actually implementing it —could stop the Zeigarnik effect. The researchers had one group write about two tasks that needed to be completed soon, describe the consequences if the tasks were left unfinished, and assign the tasks a value on a scale of one to seven. The second group was given the same instructions, but required to come up with a plan to get those tasks done. A control group wrote about tasks that had been completed. Then, all three groups were given a portion of a novel to read and were tested on their comprehension.
Those who made a plan weren’t distracted by intrusive thoughts and performed better on the comprehension tests. That’s the good news. The bad news is that simply making a plan to get whatever is nagging you done won’t reduce any of the angst or worry associated with unfulfilled goals, as further experimentation shows.
5. Do the work of getting it done. There’s only one solution to completely reducing the anxiety and negative affect that accompanies important unfinished business: Complete the task.
I am guessing that, deep in your heart, you already knew that…
Copyright © Peg Streep 2014
READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work
Wegner, Daniel M. White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. New York: The Guildford Press, 1994.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Ironic Processes of Mental Control,” Psychological Review, 101,no. 1 (1997).
Wegner, Daniel M. David J. Scheider, Samuel R. Carter III, and Teri L. White, “ Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, no. 1 (1987): 5-13.
Wegner, Daniel M. “You Can’t Always Think What You Want: Problems in the Suppression of Unwanted Thoughts,” Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25 (1992), 193-225.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist (November, 2011): 671-670.
Masicampo, E.J, and Roy F. Baumeister, “Consider It Done: Plan Making Can eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June, 2011), advance online publication. DOI:10.1037/90024192.