How to (not) Think, Say, or Do the Worst Thing

July 15, 2009

Daniel Wegner’s review article (Science, 325, 48-50, 3 July 2009) of “ironic behavior”, thinking-saying-doing-feeling exactly the opposite of what we intend, sheds light on a host of mental and behavioral problems.

To begin with, why do I drive my bike directly into a fallen tree branch when I have already decided to go around the branch? Why do cheering baseball fans make it harder for me to avoid swinging at a wild pitch? Why do I kick a soccer ball directly into the goalie’s outstretched arms when the entire net is available? These are all “ironic” behaviors and Wegner describes a multitude of situations where ironic behavior appears.

As I understand it, the current theory of ironic behavior postulates two competing mental processes. When we are instructed “don’t do/think/say/feel X”, we begin a conscious mental process of distraction, looking for something “not X” to do/think/say/feel. At the same time, we also initiate an unconscious “monitor” process that begins looking for potential mistakes. This monitor checks to make sure we aren’t doing/thinking/saying X and it keeps the idea of X alive in our subconscious rather than letting it dissipate. Normally these two processes work well together, but things can go wrong, and since the monitor keeps the notion of X alive, X is ready to pop out whenever a suitable trigger arises.

A nice example of this, and the simplicity of ironic triggers (of which there are many), is shown in Figure 3, which shows the tracings a handheld pendulum makes on a piece of paper in four experimental scenarios. The scenarios are generated by telling the person with the pendulum to “hold it steady” or “keep it from swinging up and down”, and their ability to follow each of these instructions is tested first, without competing distractions, and second, by asking them to count backwards from 1000 by threes. The images graphically demonstrate our inability to follow instructions when overloaded with a second, unrelated task.

So how can we avoid ironic behavior and thoughts? One way “we can stop thinking of things” is to make “time to devote to the project [of not X] and become absorbed in our self-distractions”. In other words, we have to give the conscious project of distraction, of following instructions, a chance. Multi-tasking is not helpful. Another helpful approach may be to relax. Striving for tight control of our thoughts, etc., may keep the unwanted thought alive to a greater extent than simply accepting an unwanted thought’s existence whenever it appears. Does this sound like vipassana?

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