Wednesday, April 26, 2017

W is for White Bears –Trying to Suppress Your Thoughts May Just Make Matters Worse

Whatever you do, don’t think of a white bear. Do whatever you want and think about whatever you want – Just so long as it isn’t a white bear. Close your eyes and just relax, but don’t think of a white bar.  I imagine, right now, many of those of you reading this are thinking of a certain pale four legged ursidae.  This illustrates the common phenomenon, known as the White Bear Principle.  This principle describes what happens when we try to suppress our thoughts. Once we try to not think of something specific, we often find we think about it all the time.  This paradox can contribute to such problems as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression and is one of the hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In a study by Wegner (2011), two groups of people were told to verbalize their thoughts for five minutes.  One group was told not to think of a white beat, the other group was told they could do so.  All participants were to press a counter each time they thought of the bear.  There was no difference between the groups suggesting that efforts to suppress the thought was not effective. 

The really interesting thing about this experiment however, was shown in the second part when all subjects were told they could think of the white bear.  Those who had been in the suppression group previously, thought of the bear at a much higher rate than the other subjects.  It appears that the act of suppression can have a rebound effect when the person stops trying to suppress the thought.

This rebound effect has interesting implications for a variety of situations in which we try to suppress our thoughts. Consider someone who is dieting and has a terrible sweet tooth such that they have to constantly tell themselves not to eat their favorite cakes and cookies.  Wegner’s study suggests that if they tell themselves it is okay to cheat a little on a special occasion it is possible they may suddenly have a host of uncontrollable thoughts suggesting that it is okay to indulge which throws off their diet entirely.  A better way of handling thoughts that we want to control may be to use intentional distraction to take our mind off of the thought instead of trying to suppress it.


Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 66(8), 671.

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