Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"Wegner's Thought-Suppression Dare (Don't Think of a White Bear)"

(Updated April 23, 2015)

For over 20 years, Dan Wegner (who died of ALS in 2013) and colleagues studied what they called the paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Their basic paradigm was to instruct research subjects not to think of some object (a white bear, which is a Dostoevsky reference). Subjects tended not to be able to suppress thoughts of a white bear and, in an open-thought session later in the experiment, they exhibited an increased frequency of white-bear thoughts relative to a control group that did not have to suppress white-bear thoughts earlier.

After you've sung the following song, try not to think about it...


Wegner’s Thought-Suppression Dare
Lyrics by Alan Reifman
(May be sung to the tune of “Living on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi/Sambora/Child)

Want to keep a thought, out of mind?
Actively blocking, ain’t going to work,
You’ll find, you’ll find,

If you try to block, something out,
It’s gonna rebound, harder than before,
There is, no doubt,

You know, we can’t control thoughts, that’s what it seems,
It only helps a little, if you try different schemes,
Yes, it’s futile, to try and block out memes,
They’ll intrude, right into your dreams…

Oh-h-h, Wegner’s thought-suppression dare,
Doh…on’t think of a white bear!
The target, will re-appear,
If you, try to block white bears…



For the most part, the lyrics should be self-explanatory. The phrasing of how cognitive "schemes" can "help a little" refers to a finding in the original Wegner et al. (1987) Experiment 2. Subjects in a variation of a thought-suppression condition were instructed to substitute the thought of a red Volkswagen for the forbidden white bear, and this technique made the suppression somewhat more effective than suppression instructions alone. The part about intrusion "right into your dreams" is based on an actual study (Wegner et al., 2004).

Further Reading

In addition to the articles listed below, there are several websites that provide information related to thought-suppression research. The topic has a Wikipedia entry. A self-report questionnaire measure from Wegner's lab on suppression and control of thoughts, known as the "White Bear Suppression Inventory" is available here. Finally, a news release on the research from Rice University, the home of collaborator David Schneider, is available here.

Wegner, D.M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin. (1994 Edition, New York: Guilford Press.)

Wegner, D.M. (1992). You can't always think what you want: Problems in the suppression of unwanted thoughts. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 193-225). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wegner, D.M., & Schneider, D.J. (2003). The white bear story. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 326-329.

Wegner, D.M., Schneider, D.J., Carter, S.R., & White, T.L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.

Wegner, D.M., Wenzlaff, R.M., & Kozak, M.. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in dreams. Psychological Science, 15, 232-236.

Wenzlaff, R.M., & Wegner, D.M. (2000). Thought suppression. In S.T. Fiske (Ed.), Annual review of psychology (Vol. 51, pp. 59-91). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

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