Inspired by Dostoevsky’s observation, “Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute,” psychologist Daniel Wegner designed experiments to test how well people can suppress their own thoughts. The answer: poorly. Subjects forbidden to think about a subject not only thought of it more often; they continued to think about it for days on end. In tribute to Wegner, who died earlier this month, Maria Konnikova reprints a 2012 essay on his findings:
The more effort we expend on keeping something from our mind, the more likely we are to be reminded of it—because at some level, we have to keep reminding ourselves not to think about it. As long as not thinking is in the back of our minds, we will be prompted to think of precisely the thing we shouldn’t be thinking about. Wegner calls this an ironic monitoring process: each time we think about a distracter topic to put off the topic we’d like to avoid (something we do consciously), our minds unconsciously search for the unwanted thought so that they can pounce on it if it makes so much as a peep. And if we are tired or stressed or distracted—or even if our mind goes silent for a moment—the unwanted thought will take the opportunity to assert itself.
It’s especially bad in social situations, when we try to avoid making mistakes that would carry some sort of social cost, such as trying not to swear or make sexual references or touch on an otherwise sensitive area of conversation. People who are asked to keep something private are more likely to mention it or allude to it in some way in a conversation. People who are asked not to think of anything sexual are more likely to slip up—and even show greater levels of physical arousal. People with eating disorders are more likely to mention food. People who have some sort of social prejudice—racism, sexism, homophobia—are more likely to say something biased when they are trying to be on their best behavior—especially if they are stressed or otherwise mentally engaged at the time.