Mental Control and Ironic Processes

How do people control their own minds? The simple strategy of directing attention can often be helpful, as people can stop thoughts, concentrate, improve their moods, relax, fall asleep, and otherwise control their mental states just by trying to direct their thoughts. These strategies of mental control can sometimes backfire, however, producing not only the failure of control but the very mental states we are trying to avoid. The theory of ironic processes of mental control (Wegner, 1994, 2009) holds that any intentional control of the mind introduces an operating process that directs conscious attention--focusing our minds on positive thoughts, for example, if we are hoping to improve our mood. This process is accompanied, however, by an ironic monitoring process that looks for the failure of our intention. Such monitoring can, when we are stressed or under mental load, actually promote the unwanted mental state--for example, making us sad when we want to be happy. Ironic processes were first discovered in the study of thought suppression, where unwanted thoughts can return merely because we try not to think about them. But ironic processes seem to underly a variety of unwanted mental states, from obsession and depression to anxiety and insomnia, and can produce unwanted actions in sports and performance settings as well.  

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