Over the past 25 years, a series of studies have found suppressing unwanted thoughts is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Try to not think of a white bear, and chances are the creature will come roaring into your mind.
In 2007, British psychologist James Erskine applied this dynamic to diet. He reported women instructed not to think about chocolate consumed more of the high-calorie treat when offered it, and suggested this rebound effect may explain the failure of so many dieters to lose weight over the long term.
Now, in a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, he and two colleagues provides evidence that thought suppression can also sabotage attempts to quit smoking.
Their study featured 85 regular cigarette smokers (42 men and 43 women). While 70 percent of them had attempted to quit smoking at some point, none were actively attempting to do so at the time of the experiment.
Each day for three weeks, participants recorded the number of cigarettes they smoked that day, as well as their stress level. One week into the experiment, one-third of the smokers were asked to “try not to think about smoking. If you do happen to have thoughts about smoking this week, please try to suppress them.” Another third were instructed to think about smoking as frequently as possible during the week. The final third received neither instruction.
During that second week, “the suppression group smoked considerably less than both the expression group (those encouraged to think about smoking) and the control group,” the researchers reported. But the situation reversed itself in Week Three, as those in the suppressed-thoughts group smoked considerably more than those in the other two categories.
“This suggests that in the short term, suppression may be effective in reducing unwanted behavior,” Erskine and his colleagues write. “This may explain a troublesome aspect of thought suppression — that individuals perceive the strategy as beneficial.”
Which it is — but only until the rebound hits.
Those in the suppression group reported higher stress levels in Week Two than those in the other two groups, but the researchers found this effect was not responsible for the increase in Week Three smoking. Rather, the results appear to reflect a pure bounce-back effect: The white bear returns, carrying a carton of Pall Malls.
In the researchers’ view, these results “suggest that thought suppression may be more harmful than previously believed,” especially for struggling addicts. So if you’re craving a cigarette, let the image of that glowing cylinder linger in your mind until it fades away on its own. Pushing it aside only makes it more likely you’ll light up later.