Sunday, October 5, 2008

Don't Think about the Pink Elephant!

photo taken by JasonJT;
Let's do a little thought experiment.

Close your eyes. Imagine a pink elephant as vividly as you can. It is hot pink! Does it look like Dumbo? Or it is like an elephant in the zoo?

Now, I want you to NOT think about the pink elephant. Think of anything else but the pink elephant. Try it for a few mins.

What are you thinking of? How many times did the pink elephant cross your mind? Quite a few times, right?

Now, close your eyes again and try to think about what you did for today? Who did you meet? Where did you go? Anything interesting happened when you were traveling? What did you eat for breakfast/lunch? Try it for a few mins.

How many times did you think of the pink elephant? None? Maybe once or twice especially since I asked this question?

This little exercise is proof that suppressing your thoughts doesn't really work.

Often the advice we get when we are upset is "don't think about it". Yet by the very fact that we try not to think about something and try to suppress it, our minds keep going back to the same unhappy thoughts.

Instead, one thing that we can do to take our attention off the things that upset us, is to focus on things that can absorb our whole attention. Immersing yourself in work may be a way, but for some people, it just cannot hold their attention long. In the back of their mind, they are still frustrated with what upset them. A good possible choice is doing something that makes us happy.

Maybe going out with friends for a movie is something that captures your whole attention. For people who like to read, a good book can absorb us wholly for a while. Maybe your thing is playing computer games? Then, go play until a point when you are victorious and on a roll before stopping. By stopping at the point when you are triumphant or happy, your mood will be elevated and you can then proceed to do things that you need to do (e.g. work).

Distraction and concentration can help us move our focus to more pleasant things and enable us to do the things we need to when necessary. Instead of wallowing in our bad mood, by moving our attention to something happy or pleasant, our mood will improve and we can tackle our problems more rationally.

The theory behind:
This is actually an adaptation from the classic study by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White (1987)

The experiment was to ask people not to think of a target (e.g. “white bear”) for five-minutes but if they did to ring a bell. After this, participants were told to think about the target for five-minutes more. Compared to those who had not used suppression there was evidence for unwanted thoughts being immediately enhanced during suppression and, furthermore, a higher frequency of target thoughts during the second stage, dubbed the rebound effect (Wegner, 1989)
~ Wikipedia - Thought Suppression

According to the process model of emotional regulation (Gross, 1998), attentional deployment is one of the first emotion regulatory processes. There are 3 main strategies: distraction, concentration and rumination.
  • Distraction focuses attention on nonemotional aspects of the situation or moves attention away from the immediate situation altogether. It also happens when we shift our goals to something more attainable or we think about other unrelated thoughts.
  • Concentration is when our cognitive resources are wholly absorbed into the task we are doing.
  • Rumination involves directed attention, but attention is directed to feelings and their consequences. A caveat here is that rumination on negative emotions can lead to more severe depressive symptoms.


Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thoughts suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13
Gross, James J.(1998)The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299

Any other methods of coping with unpleasant thoughts? What do you do when you are faced with some negative thoughts that you rather avoid?


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Carrie Swift - Public Speaking Trainer said...

Great article. I am using similar techniques to this in helping people overcome fear of public speaking: I help them to understand their negative thoughts around the experience of public speaking and manage those thoughts, as opposed to ignoring them and not acknowledging the fear which usually just leads to avoidance - they end up dodging opportunities to present altogether. Seems to be working well so far - intellectualising fear and negative thinking helps us to get control over it.