A well-known effect in psychology is that if you try to suppress a thought, ironically this can make the thought all the more salient – known as the “rebound effect“. What are the implications of this effect for highly religious teenagers who have been taught to believe that sexual thoughts are taboo? Before now there has been little research on the rebound effect in this context, but in a recent paper in The Journal of Sex Research, Yaniv Efrati at Beit Berl College, Kfar-Saba, Israel, presents evidence that the rebound effect could explain why orthodox Jewish teens have more compulsive sexual thoughts and fantasies than their secular peers. What’s more, his results suggest this mental dynamic might be responsible for the religious teens’ lower scores on self-reported wellbeing.
Three studies involved hundreds of secular Israeli teen volunteers, boys and girls aged 14 to 18, and a similar number of teen orthodox Jews of both sexes, who will have been taught by the religious text the Talmud that “thoughts of transgression are more severe than transgression” – as well as receiving other decrees to avoid impure thoughts and masturbation – and therefore may have learned to try to conceal and suppress their sexual thoughts and feelings out of fear of shame and guilt.
True to this prediction, Efrati found that the orthodox Jewish teens tended to score higher on a questionnaire measuring their frequency of compulsive sexual fantasies and thoughts (for example, they agreed more often with statements like “I feel like my sexual fantasises hurt those around me”). He also found that higher scorers on compulsive sexual thoughts tended to report being less happy, and this association explained why the orthodox Jewish teens tended to report being less happy than their secular peers.
In the final and most revealing study, Efrati linked the earlier findings with the rebound effect. Using a questionnaire measuring sexual suppression (an example item was “very often I find myself trying to suppress my sexual thoughts”), he found that Jewish orthodox teens engaged in more suppression of their sexual thoughts, and in turn this was linked with their having more compulsive sexual thoughts and fantasies, and also lower overall happiness (presumably because of the shame and guilt associated with the taboo thoughts, although they didn’t score any higher for depression or distress). Efrati said this result “corroborates with studies on the rebound effect in many other domains … and shows that suppression of sexual thoughts only begets higher pre-occupation with sexual thoughts and fantasies.”
Although the findings are consistent with Efrati’s argument that the thought suppression rebound effect causes greater sexual thoughts among the religious teens, it’s important to note that the studies were purely correlational leaving them open to other interpretations. One alternative explanation, for instance, is to see everything in reverse – that the lower happiness among the Jewish orthodox teens (whatever is causing it) leads them to have more compulsive sexual thoughts, which triggers more attempts to suppress those thoughts. Even if Efrati’s interpretation is the correct one, it remains to be seen whether the same results will also apply among other religious groups besides orthodox Jews in Israel.
“Despite these shortcomings, ” Efrati concluded, “we view the current research as an important step in understanding adolescents’ suppression of sexual thoughts, taking into account the cultural- religious context as a major component in adolescents’ sexual development.”