Friday, August 28, 2009

Suppressing Does Not Work - Part One of Two - Behavioral Rebound

Hello Friends:

For the next five minutes, you can choose to do one of two things - you can talk about chocolate, OR you can specifically talk about anything BUT chocolate. Five minutes. Go.

If you are like the people in this 2007 study, by doing either of these things, you will have changed your eating behavior towards chocolate compared to a control group that got to talk about whatever they wanted. If you talked about chocolate (and were male), you wound up eating more of it than the control group. If you suppressed talking about chocolate (and were either male or female) you wound up eating more of it than the control group.

No way to win, here.

The point from my perspective, anyway, is that while you might guess ahead of time that talking a whole bunch about chocolate would make you want some, you'll want chocolate if you specifically don't talk about it, as well. This is a form of behavioral rebound. The idea isn't new - it's classic folk wisdom that when you're told not to do or want something, you want it that much more. But the folk wisdom plays out as true in the research, as well.

The implication for behavior, perhaps especially to sticking to an eating plan, is pretty clear. Any kind of focus on something you don't want to do, either by indulging in it or trying to run from it, could actually make it more likely that you'll do it in the end. I found this out the hard way one year when I gave up chocolate for Lent. Very dumb, since right at the end of Lent someone hands you a big basket of candy that almost always contains a solid 1 lb milk chocolate bunny. The bunny was gone from this Earth in about fifteen minutes. And then I was sick for the next two days. Unlike getting sick from drinking, which can put you off the alcohol in question forever, I didn't give up chocolate afterwards. I gave up Lent.

So getting to the point. Suppression/deprivation probably changes our behavior because it changes our thoughts first. The experiment above directly related to behavior, that is, talking and then eating. But, you don't have to measure how much chocolate was consumed to see the difference, you can go ahead and look directly at your thoughts. Example ... with apologies to
Wegner et al. 1987.

Exercise 1 - For the next three minutes, do not think of chocolate. You can think about anything else but chocolate. Three minutes. Go.

Did you think about chocolate? Much? More than usual?

Exercise 2 - Okay, now you can take the next three minutes and think about whatever you want, chocolate included. Go.

Right. Did chocolate come up again. Much? More than usual?

If you are like most of the population, the first exercise borders on ridiculous. Like the behavioral rebound, there is a sort of thought rebound. It’s impossible to not think of something you’ve been told not to think about. It seems the very act of trying to suppress or avoid the thought makes it more likely to come up. And, as it turns out, it makes it more likely to turn up later (as in the second exercise) than it would have if you hadn’t been forced to ‘avoid’ it earlier. Either way, it seems that trying to avoid thinking about something is a rather good technique for making yourself think about it a lot.

If you are like me, you’ve encountered this fact plenty when trying to ‘fix’ yourself regarding your disorders. For example, my 'bad' thought is "I’m a failure". Saying to myself “stop thinking that” is useless. I have wanted to stop thinking it all my life, and I’ve tried very hard to stop. I still think it all the time. My usual response, when the idea comes up, is either to wallow in the truth of it or try to smush it ruthlessly.

While I could imagine wallowing in it to be counterproductive (even if unstoppable) I also imagined that smushing ruthlessly (on those occasions I manage to do that) to be productive. According to the research, this isn't so. Trying to stomp on and toss out 'bad' thoughts seems to give them just as much life and energy as ruminating or brooding over them.

I would find this discouraging if I hadn't read it in the context of a way to do something other than run towards or run away from thoughts. And I'll post about that in Part II.

But for now I gotta go. I really need some chocolate.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image from kspodder on Flikr via Creative Commons


Andy said...

I wonder if this is somehow related to... I think it's called "target fixation", where the act of trying to avoid an obstacle increases the likelihood of hitting it. I can certainly imagine that increased attention to a specific item/topic could relatively easily lead to a preoccupation with it.

Perhaps better to be oblivious to one's surroundings? :)

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Andy - It's the old 'ignorance is bliss' eh? Target fixation - that's a great metaphor for this. Esp the word 'fixation'. We are fixated on our thoughts, trying desperately to stop them, to think new things. Making thinking the old thoughts even more likely. Better to find ways to take the charge out of all thoughts, good or bad, and try to be more accepting of ourselves. Then perhaps we won't run into anything!

The Tenacious Writer said...

"I didn't give up chocolate afterwords. I gave up lent." Priceless!

Perhaps this is why those of us with depression/anxiety issues tend to develop obsessions. The obsession distracts from the thoughts without outright supressing them.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey there Tenacious - Yep, I think there is something to that. Obsessing creates more obsessing either when trying not to think of something, or when feeling forced to think about it constantly.

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