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Mind control doesn't work -- even when we try it on ourselves

2:30 PM EDT, August 19, 2010

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When it comes to giving up something you crave, you can run but you can't hide from your mind's insistent prodding. In fact, the more forcefully you try to suppress your thoughts about the behavior or object you desire, the more deeply you'll gorge on it when you get the chance to do so.

Oh, and by the way, suppressing thoughts of something you want will make you feel lousy as well.

That's the message of a study focusing on smokers to be published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science.

A trio of psychologists at the University of London and the University of Hertfordshire in Britain are among a small group of researchers exploring the effects of "thought suppression" -- the purposeful avoidance of conscious thinking about some impulse or wanted object. Their past findings should give serious pause to those of us who hope that if we just don't think about something -- or someone -- we'd rather forget, that our minds will comply.

This widely used self-control strategy actually makes our thoughts return more often, not less, to the thing we're trying to forget, research has found.

The latest study finds evidence that thought suppression results in "behavioral rebound" as well -- that trying to suppress thoughts of doing something will increase -- not decrease -- the drive to do it once you get the chance. It follows a study by the same group that found that enduring a short period of trying not to think about eating chocolate increases consumption of chocolate when it's subsequently offered.

The latest study looked at cigarette use among a group of 85 smokers over three weeks -- none of whom were trying, or under instructions, to quit. Participants were split into three groups, and at the beginning of the second week, one group was asked to think about smoking as often as they could. The second group was asked to avoid thoughts of smoking. "If you do happen to have thoughts of smoking this week, please try to suppress them," the researchers instructed. A third group -- the control group -- just recorded their daily cigarette use and stress levels.

In the third week, when all groups were told to return to their normal patterns of thought, the participants' smoking levels were recorded. The thought-suppression group, which had decreased their cigarette use during week two, roared back: They smoked significantly more than did members of the two other groups and more than they had at the outset. During week two, the suppression group also reported a significantly uptick in stress and discomfort. Neither of the other two groups showed any change in the numbers of cigarettes smoked or their levels of stress.

The findings, says psychologist James Erskine, the lead author, "have obvious implications for individuals seeking to give up certain behaviors, for example, smoking, overeating, drinking, sex and other excessive behaviors. If trying to avoid thoughts of something in an effort to give it up actually unwittingly triggers a subsequent increase, it is a poor method of achieving self control."

The fact that the thought-suppression group did reduce their smoking in the week that they attempted to control their thinking may explain why so many people subscribe to the "try to think of something else" school of quitting a bad habit. But if ignoring our unwanted thoughts routinely backfires, says Erskine, maybe a better strategy would be to acknowledge them. Only then can we try to talk ourselves down.

-- Melissa Healy / Los Angeles Times