The White Bear Problem: Ironic Process Theory

Instructor: Derek Hughes

Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.

The white bear problem, or ironic process theory, explains a common thought process that people struggle with often. This lesson will describe the theory, the research that led to its development, and some suggested techniques for avoiding this particular thought process.

Ironic Process Theory Defined

While reading this lesson, don't think about a pink elephant. Every time you do, make a tick mark on a nearby piece of paper. Keep the paper beside you the entire time you're reading this lesson and consistently make marks whenever you think of a pink elephant. Later, you will be asked how many tick marks you made, so it's important to be vigilant.

In his 1863 essay 'Winter Notes on Summer Impressions', Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, 'Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.' This sentence clearly defines what later became ironic process theory, which refers to a thought process in which attempts to suppress certain thoughts only make it more likely that you will think them.

Daniel Wegner's Research

Daniel Wegner, PhD, came across Dostoevsky's quote and decided to study this phenomenon in a more formal way. Wegner attempted to pin down what is happening when thoughts intrude even though we are trying our hardest not to think them. His research involved multiple steps, explained below.

First, Wegner asked a group of participants to sit and say aloud their stream of consciousness for five minutes. While doing so, he told them not to think of a white bear. Every time they thought of a white bear, they were supposed to ring a bell. In this phase of the experiment, Wegner found that participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, even though being told explicitly not to.

After the first five minutes, Wegner told his participants to once again speak their stream of consciousness. This time, however, he told them to try to think of a white bear, and ring a bell every time they did. What do you think happened? Did they think of a white bear fewer times or more often?

Before answering this question, we must consider a crucial second group of participants in Wegner's study. This group was given the same task- speak aloud their stream of consciousness- but were told from the beginning to think of a white bear. Wegner's results showed that the first group, who had initially been told not to think of white bears, thought of them more in the second part of the experiment than the second group, which had never been told to not think of the bear.

So what does this mean? Wegner's experiment showed that the more you attempt to suppress a thought, the more likely it is that the thought will come up later with much more prevalence. After more research, Wegner found that while one part of your brain works to keep a thought locked away, there is another part that checks to ensure that the thought is locked away, which then causes you to think it (hence the 'ironic' part of the theory).

Practical Effects

Sometimes, the ironic process theory is used for humor or just silly fun. Someone tells you not to think of something and you struggle, which gets a laugh from both you and other people around. However, it also has practical effects in a wide area of activities and behaviors. For example, have you ever gone into a test thinking that you're going to suppress any distracting thoughts so you can fully concentrate? How did that work out? Probably not too well.

Additionally, people struggling with serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression may initially attempt to suppress troubling thoughts to make them go away. An anxious person may try to lock away their anxious thoughts or ignore them, only to have them come up later with even more force. A person with depression may suppress thoughts of suicide, which then come back stronger.

These effects can be seen in a wide variety of contexts. However, that does not mean that we are hopeless and bound to a never-ending cycle of thought suppression and rebound. Wegner found that when discussing his research, the question he got the most often was 'What can I do about this? How can I stop unwanted thoughts?' The next section addresses some of the strategies he and others have come up with.

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