“No matter how much I seem to try, I just can’t seem to forget it!” Can you connect with this statement? You are not alone. This is a very commonly occurring, yet largely unknown phenomenon called the White Bear Problem. Also known as Ironic Processes Theory in scientific literature, for the obvious very reason that as to what happenswhen you actively instruct your mind to not think about something, you end up thinking about it more. While one part of your brain works to keep a thought locked away, there is another part that checks to ensure that the thought is expressed locked away, which then causes you to think about it (hence, the 'ironic' part of the theory).

Something that started with a simple observation by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863, was then studied empirically by the social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD. Wondering what is the need to even talk about this “White Bear Problem?” This problem is the root of many other human predicaments. troubles. This Ironic Process affects our daily lives in ways that we can only imagine: be it on a new date, or right up to the day when you are in a debilitating a bad emotional state. It has serious implications at the cognitive, affective and behavioural levels for individuals, which is what I’ll be exploring in this piece.

Have you ever been in a situation wherein you are instructing yourself to not say something aloud and unfortunately you end up saying precisely what you did not want to?  When under pressure and specifically trying to avoid mentioning something, it can still find a way out because the ironic process is at play. As you are actively trying to keep quiet, a part of the brain that seems to be having the job of checking just that may give you away. In a study by Lane et al. (2006) exactly this phenomenon was observed. Participants were more likely to give a fact away when they were specifically told to keep it secret, compared to than when they were given no such instruction. Be it presentations or relationships, important meetings or a first date, such a risk of thought suppression is a mammoth one to take.

Rather, more embarrassing situations are those when latent prejudices are revealed after specific attempts are made to suppress them. Sometimes, the more amount the amount of efforts that are put in in trying to be politically correct, socially acceptable, and desirable, and e; the more efforts are to suppress their prejudices; the more likely it is that the people will accidentally display their racism, sexism, homophobia or other prejudices in some way. Macrae et al. (1994), for instance, found participants in a waiting room who were actively trying to suppress their dislike of white supremacists sat further away from them, in a way contradicting their own efforts.

Our emotions are just as prone to ironic effects as our cognitions. Unfortunately, when people try to suppress a sad or bad mood, they often find it comes back with a vengeance. And it may become contagious as well. Just as Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, rightly said, “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.” Ironic processes may have deep implications in anxiety and depression as well. For this reason standard psychological therapies avoid thought suppression and try to focus on distraction and acceptance (Beevers et al., 1999). There’s some evidence that trying to suppress pain may cause it to be experienced more strongly. But, Wegner (2009) argues that explains, we have to be cautious about this one as it hasn’t been conclusively supported. proven. There is evidence, though, that trying to accept pain is a better policy than rejecting it or trying to cope spontaneously (Masedo & Esteve, 2007).

Sleep is extremely essential for the human body to rejuvenate itself. Anyone Everyone who has ever tried to force themselves to fall get some asleep knows it’s an difficult impossible feat to achieve. The harder you consciously try to fall asleep, the longer you stay awake. This is exactly what researchers find in the sleep lab of (Ansfield and group et al., (1996). That is why when someone goes to sleep they say that they fell asleep or dropped off to sleep: it’s as though you have to do it by accident. Here too the ironic process is at play. In addition to that people are more likely to dream about subjects they are specifically trying to avoid (Schmidt & Gendola, 2008). Whether they are emotional or neutral topics, using suppression will make them more likely to turn up in your dreams. So now you know that all those incomplete test papers and deadlines of submissions turn up in your dreams when you are successful in ignoring them while you are awake!. 

A mere awareness of the existence of the Ironic Processes, however, may not ease your worries. What may happen is that you can end up worrying about suppressing your thoughts and then getting worked up by the repercussions. In his APA presentation, Wegner (2011) described several strategies that he and others have come across to help "suppress the white bears." These y include:

Pick an absorbing distractor and focus on that instead: Wegner and his colleagues found that giving the participants something else to focus on helped them to avoid the unwanted white bears.

Try to postpone the thought: Some research has found that asking people to simply set aside ‘half an hour a day for worrying’ allows them to avoid worrying during the rest of their day, Wegner said. So next time an unwanted thought comes up, he suggested, just try to tell yourself, "I'm not going to think about that until next Wednesday."

Cut back on multitasking: One study found that people under increased mental load show an increase in the availability of thoughts of death—one of the most intrusive great unwanted thoughts for most people.

Exposure: Even though it is painful, it could work. "This is painful," Wegner said, "but it can work." If you allow yourself to think in controlled ways of the thing that you want to avoid, then it will be less likely to pop back into your thoughts at other times.

Meditation and mindfulness: There's evidence that these practices, which strengthen mental control, may help people avoid unwanted thoughts, Wegner said.

Whether you want to think or don’t,To think or not to think, this phenomenon is here to stay.

Priya Baid