Who Cares about White Bears?

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Thread: Who Cares about White Bears?

  1. #1

    Who Cares about White Bears?

    In his short story, The Imp of the Perverse, Edgar Allen Poe tells the story of a man who commits murder in order to inherit wealth and property. After many years of living in luxury, the man becomes plagued by a repeating thought that instructs him to confess his crime. The man tries to put the thought out of his mind but it seems the more he tries not to think of confessing the more he thinks about confessing. Poe’s story examines why humans often think of harmful thoughts and how the act of trying not to think those thoughts leads to more of the same thoughts. These types of thoughts are known as Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts (UIT’s). UIT’s are described as ‘any distinct, identifiable cognitive event that is unwanted, unintended, and recurrent. It interrupts the flow of thought, interferes with task performance, is associated with negative effect, and is difficult to control.’ They are the kind of thoughts that just pop into our minds from seemingly nowhere. The sexual or violent thoughts. The thoughts of shouting and swearing in public. The sort of thoughts that comedian Russell Brand speaks about in a stand up show where he tells the audience about a time he chatted to an old lady while thinking just 'punch her in the gob.'

    In his book, The Imp of the Mind, psychologist Lee Baer explains that while these types of thoughts are common in people suffering with mental health conditions such as anxiety, OCD, and depression he also states that most people unaffected by mental health issues will at some point experience inappropriate thoughts at inappropriate times. Baer gives examples of several of his patients who have suffered with UIT’s. A woman rushes home from work, obsessed with thoughts of unlocked front doors, running taps, and still lit ovens. A man with no history of mental illness stands on a bridge overwhelmed with thoughts of jumping. A new mother trembles in the kitchen, unable to tend to her crying baby for fear of picking it up and smashing it against a wall. Often people suffer in silence due to the nature of these thoughts and for fear of judgement should they speak of them.

    Due to the sexual or violent nature of UIT’s, people often question their thoughts in a process known as metacognition. Metacognition is a thought process where thoughts become the subject of further thoughts. Someone experiencing UIT’s might spend time questioning why they are thinking such thoughts. Their understandable conclusion might be there is something wrong with them so they will attempt to suppress their seemingly unnatural thoughts. Unfortunately the act of thought suppression will actually make a person think more of the very thing they are trying to suppress.

    A common way to highlight the effects of thought suppression is to try and not think of something such as a red kite or a yellow car. The more you try not to think of a thing, the more that thing shows up. A historical account of this act was recorded by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. In an account of his travels in Western Europe he wrote, ‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’ Dostoevsky's brother took on this challenge and after an allocated time he seemed confused as to why he had been unable to think of anything other than white bears. Dostoevsky's polar bear challenge became the inspiration for psychologist Daniel Wegner who wanted to assess the effects of thought suppression. Inspired by what he had read, Wegner came up with the White Bear experiment.

    Wegner’s experiment consisted of two groups, both sitting at tables. One group were asked to spend a given amount of time thinking of white bears. The other group were told that they must not think about white bears. Both groups were given voice recorders to speak aloud their stream of consciousness and each test subject was given a bell. Whenever they thought of a white bear they spoke into the voice recorder and rang the bell. You might not be surprised to know that the group who were told not to think of white bears reported the most thoughts of white bears. Wegner has named these effects of thought suppression as the Ironic Process Theory (IPT). The IPT states that the act of thought suppression only serves to increase the thought you are trying to suppress. The more you try to control your thoughts the more those thoughts will show up. The theory can be broken down into two processes that come to bear (excuse pun) whenever humans try to control our thoughts in any way.

    The first process is known as an Intentional Operating Process. If someone is trying to suppress a thought this process will search for mental contents to distract from the unwanted thought. Wegner explains that the process is a conscious effort and can be interrupted. If you try not to think of a white bear then this process will search for anything to distract you from white bears. But as Wegner explains, when this part of the process is doing its job, there is another part that is actively searching for the white bear. This part of the process is known as the Ironic Monitoring Process.

    The Ironic monitoring process searches for mental contents that signal the failure of mental control. In other words when you deliberately try not to think of something this part of the process tries its best to make you think of the thing you don't want to think of. Wegner goes onto explain that this process is automatic, unconscious, and uninterruptible. In Wegner’s words, ‘it churns along in the background popping that thing back into mind repeatedly. It’s not something you can turn off once you have chosen this intention of putting this thought out of your mind. There is always a part of your mind that is looking for the thought you are trying to suppress.’ Wegner explains that people often report the thing they are trying not to think of just ‘popping’ into their minds. If you have seen the film Ghostbusters then you gave seen this process of ‘just popping in there’ in action. At the end of the film the Ghostbusters are told to choose their destructor. They realise that whatever they think of will appear and bring about the end of the world. They tell each other to clear their minds and not to think of anything. Seconds later they are told that the choice has been made. Egon, Winston, and Venkman look at each other quizzically asking if they thought of anything. None of them have. They slowly turn to Ray whose facial expression screams his guilt. He tells them ‘it just popped in there.’ They ask him ‘what just popped in there?’ Enter the one-hundred foot marshmallow man.

    Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory has been put to the test in a number of ways. In one experiment he had people stand with a plumber’s line over a target. Each individual was given the instruction not to let the pendulum swing a certain way. Also, some of them were given mental tasks such as counting down from a thousand while holding the pendulum. The results as you might expect showed that whatever way the person was told not to let the pendulum swing is the way that it eventually swung. The results showed that the more people try to not think about doing something the stronger that thought becomes to do the thing they are trying not to do; even more so when their mind is under additional stress as seen in the experiments where the clients had to undertake mental arithmetic. Wegner uses a simple formula to show how suppression and stress produces the effect a person is trying to suppress.

    Direct suppression + mental load (stress) = ironic effects.

    Wegner offers what he calls an ‘Art of Thought Suppression.’ A number of tips on how to deal with problematic thoughts. One way to do so according to Wegner is to reduce your mental load. He suggests cutting back on multi-tasking and focusing only on one thing at a time. Another suggestion is that people should take time to relax. He suggests that people revise their timelines and priorities. Things don’t need to be done there and then. And they also don’t need to be done perfectly. How many people put off tasks because of their need for perfection? ‘Giving ourselves space and time to achieve tasks is a good fix for mental control,’ Wegner says. His final piece of advice to reduce mental load is to ask for help. 'Simply reaching out to someone is a perfectly smart way to reduce your mental load,' he says.
    On the other side of the ironic process coin, Wegner speaks about reducing mental distress by cutting our attempts at direct suppression. He discusses indirect suppression such as finding absorbing distractors. Things that you genuinely care about that will take you mind off whatever problem you have going on. Wegner discusses other methods such as hypnosis, talking about your problems and undertaking activities such as yoga or mindfulness meditation. This leads him neatly into his final suggestion to reduce the harmful impact of negative or unwanted thoughts: Acceptance. Rather than struggle with unwanted or negative thoughts, learning to accept them is a powerful tool to unburden people from mental distress.

    If someone has experienced depression they will know the unwanted thoughts of rumination. The ‘I’m not good enough’ thoughts that play over and over. Or the thoughts that show us every failure and mistake we have ever made. Sufferers of anxiety will know the worrying thoughts of future events that often lead to physical symptoms as if some awful thing was actually happening in the present moment. Due to a lack of knowledge that unwanted or negative thoughts are a common feature of the human experience, people believe themselves to be defective in some way and attempt to suppress their thoughts. They struggle to put the images out of their minds not knowing that the reason they can't stop thinking awful thoughts is because they are trying to suppress them in some way. Learning techniques such as mindfulness can be an effective way to cultivate acceptance of thoughts. Being able to step back and watch thoughts rather than be caught up inside them is a scientifically proven way to reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

    In his book, Get out of your mind and into your life, psychologist, Stephen Hayes (PHD) talks about being willing to accept your experiences non-judgementally without feeling the need to push them away. ‘If you are willing to have an emotion, feeling, thought, or memory instead of attempting to control it, then the agenda of control is undermined, and you are free from the inevitable by-products of this agenda.’ Hayes goes onto explain that the refusal to experience our internal content will produce more of the thing you are trying to control. Hayes discusses the idea that in many cases the problem is not the problem itself such as anxiety or depression, but the struggle we have not to experience the anxiety or depression. Hayes refers to two types of pain that humans suffer: clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain being the problem itself and dirty pain being the pain caused by the struggle of not experiencing the problem. Being able to accept what we are feeling and not dwell on what we think we should be feeling is key to living a better life according to Hayes. Or as the Buddhists say: Suffering = pain x resistance.

    Hayes says that every human being will experience negative or unwanted thoughts. Human beings have evolved to think negatively. We are continually on the look out for dangers due to our evolutionary history. Had our caveman ancestors not been constantly searching for dangers then they probably would not have survived very long. Cavemen had to be in a constant state of alert, scanning their environment for threats. A twig snapping behind a bush could be nothing, but it could also be a bear or a wolf ready to pounce. Cavemen had to think of future events in order to survive. Therapist and author, Russ Harris explains that our prehistoric ancestors also had to think about past events regularly. If they had killed a sabre toothed tiger then playing that event over and over in their minds would provide them with an evolutionary advantage. So that the next time they faced a Sabre toothed tiger they could draw on what they had learned from their last encounter. Also, our ancestors needed to be constantly evaluating their position in the group, comparing themselves to other group members. The reason for this was to ensure that they were doing their bit, living up to what the others expected of them. Because if they failed to live up to what the group expected then they could have been ejected and forced out to face wolves, bears, and anything else that might have enjoyed snacking on a caveman.

    According to Hayes and Harris, humans spend a considerable time ruminating about past events or worrying about future scenarios. Our minds are like time-machines, flitting back and forth between the past and the future. Harris believes that a lot of human suffering also comes from the comparisons we make to other people. But unlike our caveman ancestors who had a small amount of people to compare themselves to, humans today can compare themselves to anyone at any time of the day thanks to the internet. A touch of a button on a computer pad can have people comparing themselves to pop stars, supermodels, and film stars in seconds. The combination or rumination, worrying, and comparing can lead to people to believe their is something uniquely wrong with their minds when in fact their minds are just doing their jobs. Unfortunately our Windows mind operating system is about one-hundred thousand years out of date.

    In his work as a psychologist and co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Hayes states that people need to be willing to experience whatever comes into their minds in a non-judgemental manor. If we are constantly trying to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts then we are going to be constantly battling with ourselves. In his books, Hayes offers a number of practical tools that can help people to see thoughts as just thoughts. He teaches people how to see thoughts not as ‘truths’ but as mental images constructed from language. He teaches ways to distance yourself from thoughts and look at them objectively rather than be pushed around and bullied by them. Hayes's work shows the problem is not the thoughts themselves, but the way that we relate to those thoughts. Hayes comments on Wegner's work and agrees that thought suppression does not work. It only leads to more of the same thoughts. The more we suppress thoughts the more they pop up like a fairground splat the rat game.


    Baer, L. (2001). The Imp of the Mind. New York: Dutton.

    Clark, D. (2005). Intrusive thoughts in clinical disorders. New York: Guilford Press.

    Dostoyevsky, F. (1955). Winter notes on summer impressions. New York: Criterion Books.

    Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap. [S.I.]: Exisle Publishing Pty Ltd.

    Hayes, S. (2017). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. 1st ed. Oakland: New Harbinger.

    Poe.E. (1845). The imp of the perverse. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library.

    Rachman, S. (2015). Unwanted intrusive cognitions. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy.

    Wegner, D. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts. New York, N.Y,: Viking.

    Wells, A. (1995). Meta-cognition and worry: A cognitive model of generalised anxiety disorder. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy.

  2. #2
    I expected this to be about polar bears. While they were eventually mentioned, it was not until about halfway through. And at no time were they the focus of this document.

    In order to be able to give usable feedback, I need to know the purpose of this writing. Is this for a particular magazine? (In which case it should be in the protected workshop area.)

    I didn't see any glaring SPaG issues. So that's good.

  3. #3
    I have come across the idea of telling people not to think of something before, but it was in the context of people like advertisers who want someone to think about something specific, they called it 'Don't think blue', because, of course, if you say it to someone ... It can be quite a useful tool in some sorts of writing.

    Look at the beginning of your paragraphs:-
    In his short story, The Imp of the Perverse, ...
    In his book, The Imp of the Mind, ...
    In his book, Get out of your mind and into your life, ...
    In his work as a psychologist ...

    It would be very easy to re-phrase these in a more interesting way, for example 'Edgar Allen poe wrote a short story titled...', 'A similarly titled story 'Imp of the mind' by ...'
    To my mind that would also give you more possesion of the piece, you are then not simply quoting someone else, but citing them as examples in your argument, there is probably more you could do to make this true, for example starting with the definition of UIT's before citing the example.

    This strikes me as similar to the pieces about writing I have in advanced writing discussion, in that they were written as much to help me internalise the information as they were to help other writers, though hopefully they do both, hopefully
    Visit my website to read and connect to my 'soundcloud', where you can listen to stories songs and more
    Hidden Content

    A thread of links useful to writers wishing to learn
    Piglet's picks. Hidden Content

  4. #4
    Olly gave good advice. Make this piece more yours than citing others, although work must be attributed. Your article will have less of an academic dry read. Even academics want words spread as butter, not this author, this author, this study. Blend better.

    As for title, maybe this, or a variation, would keep the point:

    The White Bear beside the Elephant in the Room

    Sorry to intrude here. I rarely comment outside poetry groups. Hope helpful. Sas

  5. #5
    What an interesting topic! It's always fun to learn something new and now I know what UIT's are. You communicated the major points in your paper well, but I can't help but wonder about the purpose of this document. School-related?

    Initially I clicked on this thread because I was expecting something about climate change. The title is confusing, it isn't until paragraph 5 that white bears are mentioned and even then I feel the title is still confusing. It's quite academic, but that would make sense if this is an academic paper. More context is needed for me to give you more feedback.


  6. #6
    Very interesting paper, but to me a paper like the natural history papers I used to write (and nobody but the choir read).

    Olly hit it on the nose, make the piece yours. Draw the reader in, maybe even suggesting they try one of the experiments.

    It's hard to get many to read when they can space out with video. Try using some of the techniques of fiction in getting across non-fiction. An example of what I'm suggesting might be seen in "Heart Of A Lion, A Lone Cat's Walk Across America" by William Stolzenburg.

    I thought the title was a nice touch

    Hidden Content

    The simplest truths are written on the wall,
    where we see imaginary greatness in our fall.


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