The Ironic Effects of Trying to Control Attention

Why do we often think about exactly what we're trying not to think about?

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.

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 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.

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. 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.