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Throw Those Nasty Thoughts Away

Physically discarding thoughts we have jotted down quiets mental chatter

We all have unwanted thoughts from time to time. They often pop up when they are least wanted — mental chatter that takes us away from the present moment. People on a diet start thinking about all the things they hate about their body or, in an important business meeting, we worry about whether we are making a good impression on others instead of listening to what a potential client is saying. It seems impossible to rid our minds of these unwanted thoughts — especially when they are of the negative variety. What can we do to quiet our minds?

Several decades of psychological research show that attempts to purposefully rid unwanted thoughts from mind can backfire, making them more likely to pop up than if you hadn’t tried to suppress them in the first place...Just try NOT to think about a white bear. Fortunately, some new research published a few months ago in the journal Psychological Science shows that there are ways to wipe our mental slates clean. And, most promising, these techniques require neither a lot of time nor money — just a trash can.

As it happens, writing down your negative thoughts on a piece of paper and then physically throwing this piece of paper in the trash lessens the salience of these thoughts. Our neural circuitry doesn’t always make a clear distinction between the mental and physical. Physically discarding negative thoughts turns the volume down on them mentally too.

To test the idea that thoughts can be physical, treated as material objects, that upon their discarding, are less likely to influence our feelings and decisions, researchers asked people to either write about what they liked OR what they disliked about their bodies. Do they especially like their legs or their butt? Do they hate their big feet or their large pores? Afterwards, people were asked to look over their thoughts. Then, some people were told to throw them in a trash can located in the back of the room. Others kept their writing next to them. The last thing the researchers did was assess people’s attitudes about their bodies. Volunteers were asked to rate how attractive they felt they were and how much they liked their bodies in general.

Here is what the researchers found: When people threw their thoughts about their bodies in the trash, whether they had written about what they liked or disliked about their body had no impact on their self-image. Everyone had similar body attitudes. However, for those who kept their thoughts with them, writing about positive body aspects led to a boost in self-image compared to writing about negative body-related thoughts.

These findings resonate with recent work conducted in my lab where we found that having high-school students write about their worries immediately before an upcoming high-stakes test boosted exam scores. Our theory is that writing helps download negative thoughts from mind, making negative thoughts less likely to pop up and capture students’ attention during the test. Interestingly, in our work (and most research that has looked at the impact of writing exercises to date) the writing is taken away after people complete it (much like throwing it in the trash). Perhaps some of the benefit of expressive writing comes from this physical act of removing the negative thoughts. If students instead kept their writing, it might not have such a positive benefit — it could even backfire, leading to worse performance than not writing at all. Something we are currently looking into.

In today’s day and age, we often think of the mind as a computer — the mind’s software running the body hardware; the software tells the hardware what to do. But this logic is wrong. The hardware, it turns out, has a big say in how the software functions. Our thoughts can be seen as material objects and treating them that way can change how we think and feel.

For more on how to deal with unwanted thoughts, check out my book Choke!

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Briñol P., et al. (2012). Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation. Psychological Science.

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