Try not to think of a white bear and what happens? You end up thinking of a white bear. This idea that suppressing thoughts makes them rebound stronger is well-established in psychology [pdf]. Now James Erskine and his co-workers have shown that the same or a similar process can lead behaviours to rebound too.
Eighty-five smokers (average age 31), none of whom were currently trying to quit, were divided into three groups for three weeks. One group was instructed to spend the middle week avoiding and suppressing all smoking-related thoughts. The second group were to think about smoking as much as they could during that second week; the third group acted as controls and didn’t suppress or encourage smoking-related thoughts. Participants in all groups kept daily diaries of how much they smoked, their stress levels and how much they’d attempted to suppress smoking-related thoughts.
The main finding was that smokers in the suppression group smoked less than others during the middle week while they were suppressing smoking-related thoughts, but ended up smoking significantly more than the other smokers in the final week. In other words, trying to avoid thinking about smoking had a short term benefit but ultimately led to more smoking later on.
Erskine and his colleagues said this short-term benefit of thought suppression was ‘troublesome’ and could lead smokers to believe mistakenly that the strategy was beneficial.
Another finding to emerge was that smokers from all three groups who suppressed more smoking-related thoughts (as recorded in their evening diaries) tended to have a history of more failed attempts to quit smoking.
‘Thought suppression may be more harmful than previously believed,’ the researchers concluded. ‘Our findings are especially relevant to populations that seek to control behaviours on an ongoing basis (e.g. addicts), but are also relevant to any individuals attempting to control their desires, thoughts, and behaviours.’
This new study comes after an earlier report by James Erskine, in which suppressing thoughts of chocolate led participants to eat more chocolate.
Erskine JA, Georgiou GJ, & Kvavilashvili L (2010). I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke: Effects of Thought Suppression on Smoking Behavior. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 20660892
Thanks to George Georgiou at the University of Hertfordshire who tipped the Digest off about this new research.