Most of us have those horrible nagging thoughts of self-doubt that begin ‘I wish I weren’t so…’ or ‘I hate that I’m so…’ but apparently the worst thing we can do is push them out of mind. According to Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York, not only does this cause us to have more of such thoughts – a phenomenon known as the ‘rebound effect’ – it can also detrimentally affect our overall mood and self-esteem.
Previously evidence for this has come from laboratory studies, but now Borton and Casey have conducted a field experiment to test the effect of negative thought suppression on participants going about their everyday lives.
Before completing a web diary every evening for 11 days, 57 students were asked to bring to mind their most upsetting thought about themselves. Crucially, 29 of them were also given the following instruction:
“What I’d like you to do over the course of the next 11 days is to work particularly hard at SUPPRESSING this negative thought, pushing it from mind, trying not to think about it. If the thought should pop into your head, do your best to just push it away and try not to think about it”.
At the end of the 11-day period, the web diaries were analysed, and it was found the students instructed to suppress their negative thoughts about themselves actually had more of such thoughts, reported more anxious mood, more depressed mood, and if their negative thoughts made them feel ashamed, then they also tended to report lower self-esteem too.
So rather than suppressing these kinds of thoughts, what should we do? Lead researcher Jennifer Borton told the Digest: “Moving one’s attention away from the negative thought and onto something else is different from the ‘non-strategy’ of simply erasing the thought from mind. Of course, if the thought about oneself is true, one may need to deal with it later. If the thought is not true or exaggerated (e.g., ‘I’m ugly’), one should pick a single replacement thought on which to focus when the negative thought comes to mind (e.g., ‘I have a nice smile’; ‘I am smart’).
Borton, J.L.S. & Casey, E.C. (2006). Suppression of negative self-referential thoughts: A field study. Self and Identity, 5, 230-246.
Link to Daniel Wegner of Harvard University – his webpage contains useful links to loads of research in this area.