The article: “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression” by Daniel Wegner, David Schneider, Samuel Carter, III and Teri White, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987, Vol. 52, No. 1, Pp. 5-13).
Summary of the study: The study consisted of a series of experiments conducted with college student volunteers. In the main experiment, subjects went through 3 conditions: (1) they were asked to report into a tape recorder everything that came to mind for 5 minutes, (2) they were asked to report everything that came to mind for 5 minutes, being careful NOT to think about or mention a white bear, and (3) they were asked to report everything that came to mind for 5 minutes, being careful TO think about or mention a white bear. In each condition, subjects were instructed to ring a bell everytime they thought of or mentioned a white bear. For the purpose of the study, it was important that the order of the 3 conditions be varied for different subjects.
The results showed:
- Unless asked to do so, most subjects do not think of white bears at all.
- When asked not to think about a white bear, most subjects had a hard time suppressing the thought and found themselves thinking of one.
- When asked specifically to think of a white bear, subjects were, of course, able to do so. What was interesting, though, was that subjects who were asked first to suppress thoughts of a white bear and then asked to think of a white bear found themselves thinking much more frequently of a white bear compared to subjects who had not first been asked to suppress the thought of a white bear. There was, thus, a rebound phenomenon following suppression.
Why it’s relevant to Christians: I think this study is not only fascinating, but it also has very real implications for day-to-day life. What this study shows is that when someone tries very hard NOT to think about or focus on something, they actually begin to focus MORE on it. And that over time, it will become harder and harder for them not to think about it or focus on it; that efforts to suppress thoughts are followed by a rebound, an increase. In other words, they might have been better off never trying to suppress the thoughts to begin with!
For Christians, at least two practical applications come to mind. First, for preachers, teachers, parents or anyone trying to train others, it is important to remember that the more you focus your lessons, your sermons, your admonition on what they shouldn’t do, the more they’ll think about it. Second, for the individual Christian’s struggle against temptation, it is critical to remember that the more one tells oneself things such as “I shouldn’t lust, or notice all the women around me, or watch sexual things on TV”, or “I need to stop being so lazy, oversleeping and putting off my work”, the more one will in fact be preoccupied with, even obsessed with these things. And one will have less, rather than more, will power to combat the temptation.
Perhaps this phenomenon is why Jesus’ teaching focused primarily on positive visions of the kingdom of God rather than on inventories of the sins of man. Likewise, the apostle Paul generally followed any mention of sins to avoid with lists of desirable spiritual qualities to pursue. For instance, he tells Timothy to “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (II Tim 2:22). You find the same in passages like I Corinthians 6:9-11, Colossians 3:5-17, Galatians 5:19-26, Ephesians 5:1-20.
The focus of the Christian community should not be mainly about our shortcomings, our sins, and our failings, about what we need to work on, or change. Instead, its center should first and foremost be about Christ, who is the end of all things; about God, and His work in history, in his church and in our lives; and about the resurrection and new creation, which is the destiny of all believers.