What We Resist, Persists

by Site Author

Daniel Wegner, Matthew Ansfield, and Daniel Pilloff put together a study that led to the picture below. Randomly selected participants were instructed to hold a pendulum steady (panel A). Other participants were told not to let the pendulum swing along the Y-axis (panel B). Paradoxically, the participants who were told not to the let the pendulum swing along the Y-axis ended up with more movements along that axis. And when the participants were asked to count backwards from 1,000, it became harder for them to avoid doing exactly what they were trying not to do.

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Daniel Wegner argues that a general principle is at play here. Often, when we try not to do something, we end up more likely to do it.

Consider what happens when we try to avoid certain thoughts. Wegner has built a career demonstrating that “thought suppression” has a paradoxical effect. When we try not to think about a topic, we end up thinking about it more often than we otherwise would. What we resist, as he says, persists.

Life as a human has many splendors but at least one serious flaw: Being human means we must suffer from unwanted thoughts. We have thoughts we would love to wish away—from worries and pains to annoyances, fears, and even horrors—and these thoughts are all the more distressing because we know we often can’t dispel them just by trying.

One of Wegner’s articles on the topic, grapples with a very practical question. If thought suppression does not work, then what does work? How do we avoid distressing thoughts?

Wegner describes a few alternatives to thought suppression: meditation, ACT, expressive writing. These are all tools that anyone can try. Years ago, he wrote a popular book on the subject. This is one of the Amazon reviews.

I was going through a long period (over a year in duration) where I had trouble getting rid of “unwanted thoughts”; basically thoughts that I knew would reduce the level of pleasure I was getting out of any given activity. For example, if I dwelt on X while I was undergoing some otherwise-pleasurable activity – where X is an unwanted thought – my level of enjoyment i.e. my appreciation of that activity would decrease. While I was going through these cycles of unwanted thoughts, the quality of my life was drastically reduced. I’m sure “unwanted thoughts” differ for each person, both in their individual characteristics and implications. According to this book, one should not consciously try to suppress unwanted thoughts, as thereby the thoughts will systematically persist in reemerging. Instead, just “let it be” as it were, and inevitably the unwanted thoughts will start to dissipate.

Many of the people who work in this area do so for very personal reasons. For instance, in the article above, Wegner reveals that his interest in the topic is not purely academic.

I offer [these methods] in hopes that further research and exploration will discern whether they are indeed effective and that, in the interim, they may be useful to those who are trying to overcome unwanted thoughts, both in research and in everyday life. The project… is an experiment we each conduct every day.

I like to think that Wegner reveals here that he himself suffers from unwanted thoughts. And, though he has done so much research on the topic, he still faces difficulties.

Don’t we all?