We’ve all tried to avoid a greasy burger or suppress the thought of it in hopes of achieving a goal when, all of a sudden, it comes back to us with full force and we need it. Now. We endure weeks of skipping dessert only to find ourselves next in line at the cupcake sale justifying it with, “but it’s for charity!” We momentarily turn on the internet to fact-check only to find ourselves on a two hour Wikipedia/Tumblr/Reddit/Buzzfeed/YouTube rampage. And let’s admit, we’ve all broken our vow of silence by drunk-texting that someone we swore to never think of again and have woken up utterly mortified.
Sometimes our good intentions only go so far. We had the motivation, we had the commitment, but we just couldn’t make the changes last. It feels, almost, as if it were out of our control. As it turns out, this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy is actually not very effective, and will more likely lead you to indulge in what you were trying to avoid in the first place. It’s like trying not to think of a white elephant—it becomes the only thing you can think about.
So you’re probably wondering why this happens, and more importantly, how you can avoid it. As it turns out, the paradoxical effect of thought suppression boils down to simple thought associations.
Our brains work through a network of nodes and connections. Each node represents a thought or idea, and the connections are what link these ideas together. The more associated two ideas become with one another, the stronger the connection between them. For example, the node in your brain for “sexy” is probably more strongly linked to “Heidi Klum” than it is to the node for “midterm”. The connection between two things strengthens when you associate those things together more frequently.
Mental control consists of an ironic process that requires a conscious state of knowing and not knowing at the same time. The first is a controlled process where you actively try to find distractors to absorb your attention, and the second is an automatic process that tests your controlled process for failures, and is continuously checking to see whether that unwanted thought is present or not. When you are suppressing a thought, you are in essence constantly reminding yourself not to think about it. Let’s say you are trying to avoid thinking about pizza. Your thought process will probably be something like this: “Ok, don’t think of pizza, think of something else, I’ll text my friend. What am I doing? Oh right, trying not to think of pizza. Ok, I guess I’ll distract myself and watch an episode. Wait, what am I doing, oh, not thinking of pizza.” Through this process, you are basically ‘cueing’, or attaching everything in your line of sight to the very thought you’re trying to suppress. Everything you think about becomes a node cognitively linked to the forbidden thought—you are building connections between your environment and the thought of pizza. As a result, the thing you are suppressing becomes much more accessible through all these connections.
The solution? Distract yourself by focusing your attention on a specific, predetermined thing so that you aren’t scattering your thoughts and subsequently linking everything in your line of sight to the suppressed thought. Otherwise, your mind only knows not think of a certain thought. The trick is to target your thoughts elsewhere so that you’re not only thinking about not thinking about what you’re not trying to think about.
Happy goal pursuit!
Illustration by: Annie Tseng