Why we often think about exactly what we're trying not to think about.
Research shows that trying to control attention often fails, and it can even result in the opposite mental state that was intended.
Mental control is more likely to fail when the mind is overly burdened, such as by stress, time pressure, or fatigue.
The success of mental control often depends on how the goal is framed.
What are the ironic effects of mental control? We’ve all experienced them: feeling wide awake when trying to fall asleep yet feeling sleepy when trying to stay awake, trying not to laugh out loud for fear of waking up sleeping siblings yet bursting out in laughter uncontrollably, trying to relax yet feeling more stressed and anxious the more we try, trying to think cheerful thoughts only to be overwhelmed by a deluge of sad memories, or trying to forget an old flame yet becoming more obsessed. Research has established that these examples aren’t simply anecdotal reports or rare occurrences, but systematic manifestations resulting from the way the human brain is hardwired. According to the ironic process theory (Wegner, 1994), human mental control not only often fails, but it can ironically result in the opposite mental state of what is intended. Given the implications of ironic phenomena for a wide range of life domains such as sleep, mental health, job performance and interpersonal relationships, it is imperative to look at why these ironic effects occur, and hence how we can handle them.
Why We Can't Always Control Our Thoughts Two mental systems work in tandem when we are trying to think about something or feel a certain way. The first is an intentional system, which orients our attention to the goal state, such as to focus on a project for work, or to have any thought that is not exciting in order to fall asleep. Focusing attention on something sounds like a straightforward task, but it requires a lot of effort. The second system is a monitoring system, and the only thing it has to do is to sound an alarm whenever it detects any deviation from the goal state, such as thinking about the weekend (or getting distracted in general) when working, thinking about exciting things when trying to relax and fall asleep, or thinking about racial stereotypes when trying to be an unbiased job interviewer. This monitoring system has an easy job because it doesn’t have to do anything laborious, such as generating non-exciting thoughts, it simply needs to recognize when a deviation occurs, and then alert the intentional system to work harder.
This imbalance in the task difficulty of the intentional and monitoring systems could be analogized using the common movie scenario in which soldiers with guns oversee laborers. Most of the time, we are successful in enacting our mental intentions, such as successfully focusing on work, and successfully avoiding exciting thoughts before bed, just as most of the time, laborers in movies are adequately productive. The problem — ironic phenomena where we think about precisely what we are trying to avoid — occurs when our mind is experiencing cognitive load, or some form of burden (Wang et al., 2020).
This mental burden could take many forms, such as stress, time pressure, multi-tasking, chronic pain, or just general fatigue, and affects the intentional system much more than the monitoring system. This makes intuitive sense because in the above scenario, if both the soldiers and the workers are tired, the productivity of the workers would be reduced drastically, while the soldiers would be relatively unaffected since their job is much easier (threatening workers with a gun does not need much energy, but doing physical labor does). The Solution to Mental Control Now that we have established that mental control failures and ironies are the result of the differential effect that mental burden has on the intentional ("workers") and the monitoring ("soldiers") systems, what could we do to avoid future ironic effects? The first strategy is to minimize whatever it is that is acting as the mental burden — alleviating pain with therapy, relieving stress with yoga, and reducing fatigue by getting sufficient rest are all examples of how this can be done. After all, it makes sense that our mind works optimally when there are minimal external factors that could interfere. The second strategy is to frame the goal in a proactive rather than an avoidant way. For instance, instead of trying not to think about a recent break-up, it would be more adaptive to occupy ourselves with something else, especially thoughts and activities that are immersive, such as those that we find enjoyable, meaningful, or satisfying (Wang et al., 2017). For instance, this could be to plan a holiday, watch a TV series, play a new videogame, or get into a new relationship — in such cases, the immersive nature of the ‘distractor’ makes avoiding the thought of the break-up a much more effortless task. Framing is crucial to mental control success also because the very nature of the goal to suppress a thought is paradoxical — it essentially requires us to be conscious of something but unconscious of it at the same time (Wegner et al., 1987).
Finally, it might be a good idea not to be so restrictive about what we think, feel, or do — oppression brews rebellion, even in the mind. Labelling things as forbidden will only make us more obsessed with them, such as ice cream and chocolates while on a diet, and old flames for whom we still hold lingering feelings (Wegner & Gold, 1995). Instead, taking an acceptance-based approach might be adaptive, where the unwanted thought is gently acknowledged and embraced rather than seen as a forbidden and inappropriate thought.