Thought Suppression

How do you stop thinking about a white bear? It turns out that this question--asked originally by Dostoyevsky (1863) in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions--does not have an easy answer. People who are prompted to try not to think about a white bear while they are thinking out loud will tend to mention it about once a minute. Since the initial experimental studies of this phenomenon by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987), there have been many further explorations of the futility of suppression. It seems that many of us are drawn into what seems a simple task, to stop a thought, when we want to stop thinking of something because it is frightening, disgusting, odd, inconvenient, or just annoying. And when we succumb to that initial impulse to stop, the snowballing begins. We try and fail, and try again, and find that the thought is ever more insistent for all our trying. Many studies reveal that suppression may be the starting point for obsession, rather than the other way around. As a result, we end up thinking all too often about the doubts, worries, fears, and alarms that we have tried to erase from mind.
Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin. German translation by Ernst Kabel Verlag, 1992. 1994 Edition, New York: Guilford Press. 

  • Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.
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  • Wegner, D. M. (1988). Stress and mental control. In S. Fisher & J. Reason (Eds.), Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health (pp. 685-699). Chichester: Wiley.
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  • Wegner, D. M., Shortt, J. W., Blake, A. W., & Page, M. S. (1990). The suppression of exciting thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 409-418.
  • Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Knutson, B., & McMahon, S. R. (1991). Polluting the stream of consciousness: The effect of thought suppression on the mind's environment. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 141-152.
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  • Wegner, D. M., & Erber, R. (1992). The hyperaccessibility of suppressed thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 903-912.
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  • Erber, R., Wegner, D. M., & Thierrault, N. (1996). On being cool and collected: Mood regulation in anticipation of social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 757-766.
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  • Ansfield, M. E., Wegner, D. M., & Bowser, R. (1996). Ironic effects of sleep urgency. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34, 523-531.
  • Wegner, D. M., Broome, A., & Blumberg, S. J. (1997). Ironic effects of trying to relax under stress. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35, 11-21.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1997). Why the mind wanders. In J. D. Cohen & J. W. Schooler (Eds.), Scientific approaches to consciousness (pp. 295-315). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Hodges, S., & Wegner, D. M. (1997). Automatic and controlled empathy. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Empathic accuracy (pp. 311-339). New York: Guilford.
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  • Wegner, D. M., & Smart, L. (1997). Deep cognitive activation: A new approach to the unconscious. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 984-995.
  • Wegner, D. M., Ansfield, M. E., & Pilloff, D. (1998). The putt and the pendulum: Ironic effects of the mental control of action. Psychological Science, 9, 196-199.
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  • Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (1999). Covering up what can't be seen: Concealable stigmas and mental control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 474-486.
  • Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). The hidden costs of hidden stigma. In T. F. Heatherton, R. E. Kleck,  M. R. Hebl, & J. G. Hull (Eds.), The social psychology of stigma (pp. 220-242). New York: Guilford Press.
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  • Wegner, D. M., & Schneider, D. J. (2003). The white bear story. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 326-329.
  • Wegner, D. M., Wenzlaff, R. M., & Kozak, M.. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in dreams. Psychological Science, 15, 232-236.
  • Sparrow, B., & Wegner, D. M. (2006). Unpriming: The deactivation of thoughts through expression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 1009-1019.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Heatherton, T. F., Kelley, W. M., Wyland, C. L., Wegner, D. M., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Separating sustained from transient aspects of cognitive control during thought suppression. Psychological Science, 18, 292-297.
  • Najmi, S., Wegner, D. M., & Nock, M. K. (2007). Thought suppression and self-injurious thoughts and behaviors. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1957-1965.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The gravity of unwanted thoughts: Asymmetric priming effects in thought suppression. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 114-124.
  • Kozak, M., Sternglanz, W., Viswanathan, U., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The role of thought suppression in building mental blocks. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 1123-1130.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). Thought suppression and psychopathology. In A. Elliott (Ed.), Handbook of approach and avoidance motivation (pp. 447-459). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 325, 48-51.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Hidden complications of thought suppression. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2, 210-223.
  • Najmi, S., Riemann, B. C., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Managing unwanted intrusive thoughts in obsessive compulsive disorder: Relative effectiveness of suppression, distraction, and acceptance. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47, 494-503.
  • Najmi, S., Reese, H., Wilhelm, S., Fama, J., Beck, C., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Learning the futility of the thought suppression enterprise in normal experience and in obsessive compulsive disorder. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 38, 1-14.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2010). When you put things out of mind, where do they go? In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology in the real world pp. 114-120). New York: Worth.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears:Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist,66, 671-680.

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