27 May

 Thought Suppression an Overall Look

Kelly A. Burton

Park University

Thought Suppression an Overall Look

History of Thought Suppression And Key Players

            As far back as Freud, the idea of thought suppression has been on the minds of psychologist.  Can a person actually control their thoughts enough to suppress a thought at will?  A key research study was conduct by Wegner, Schneider, Carter and White in 1985 at Trinity University of Texas (1987).  Their study commonly known as “The White Bear” study, used a group of undergrad students to test their theories of thought suppression.   Two experiments were conducted in this study, the first study contained two groups, one group was told to not think of a white bear, the second was told to remember a white bear.  The individuals were given a tape recorder and a bell, and several time intervals of five minutes.  During the five minutes they were to verbalize and record what they were thinking, if the white bear came up they would ring the bell and continue.  During the recordings many of the subjects verbalized how they would suppress the thought of the white bear yet this only resulted in a ringing of the bell as the white bear came up.  The results of the first experiment were as expected, the group directed to suppress the white bear thoughts had more occurrences of the white bear then the group that was supposed to remember the white bear.   The researchers found, when there was single thought of suppressing the white bear it was not possible to distract themselves enough to suppress the white bear.  While the person was thinking about the task and trying to find distractors they would often come back to idea of suppressing the white bear.   The researchers came up with the second experiment and gave the person a cognitive task to perform in order to distract them.  The second experiment utilized undergrad students from the same university, with the same parameters as the first experiment, however this time they added a focused distractor of a “Red Volkswagen”, this time they were to verbalize their thoughts and to think about the car and not the bear.  The results of experiment two is in alignment with experiment one, while the thoughts of the red volkswagen were high, the thoughts of the white bear were just as high as in experiment one.  The use of a focused distraction did not work. The results of the experiments showed that willful thought suppression is not possible, however if told to focus and remember something the process of suppression occurs naturally.

In 2000, Daniel Wegner and Richard Wenzlaff expanded on their original research on thought suppression in a paper title “Thought Suppression” (2000).  In their report they cover the Phenomena, Theoretical Accounts, Key Variables, Personal Consequences, Interpersonal Consequences, and Psychopathology.  This article will briefly cover a few of the highlights of this report.  Under Phenomena, the authors cover a section titled “Emptying the Head”, the ability to think about nothing.  Which according to the authors is virtually impossible, our inner dialogs seems to be in constant motion.  However according to D.T Suzuki, in his book “Introduction to Zen Buddhism”, the ability to clear one’s head of all thought is one of the highest form of meditation (Suzuki, 1954).  Considering that most of our modern day psychology is based on western thought, the ideas of eastern philosophy normally are not considered in western postulates.

Under the Theoretical Accounts, Distractor associations, the authors found that when trying to suppress thoughts using distractors, the distractors actually became anchors for retrieving the suppressed thoughts, having a negative impact on the suppression process.  Using this type of technique for future thought suppression experiments would not be advised according to Wegner and Wenzlaff.  The authors consider Metacognition under this section and point the negative impact it could have on thought suppression.  They point out that by examining our inability to suppress our own thoughts could preclude us from even trying to under go any type of suppression. They further postulate that people who see this inability to control their own thoughts as a failure could affect their mental well being. “The resulting distress could rob them of adequate cognitive resources, thereby further undermining their mental-control efforts, setting into motion a downward spiral of mental-control failures. Eventually, this state of affairs would erode the sense of personal control and contribute to anxiety, despondency, and hopelessness.” (Wenzlaff, & Wegner, 2000).

The study covered the topic of substance cravings and how it is counter-productive to try and use thought suppression to not think about the item.  The use of thought suppression in order to not think about the craving merely intensifies the psychological need for the item.  If you are trying to diet and not think about the food, you would most likely obsess about it, according to this study.  In an Article titled, “Buddhist Mediation and Depth Psychology”, Douglas M. Burns points out that by facing a situation head on we remove it’s impact.  Using this method perhaps a way to fight a substance craving is to force yourself to think about it constantly, over bombard your mind with thoughts of the item till you are tired of thinking about it.  Burns uses this method in his article for anger, instead of trying to suppress your thoughts of anger, simply say to yourself over and over “I am Angry” (Burns, 1994).  From personal experience, I find when I do this, the fact that I am angry seems silly and it goes away.  Again this is an eastern idea, but we might benefit from a mix of west and east ideology.

An interesting area of coverage in the Wagner, Weizlaff report is stereotyping and prejudice.  They point out that in line with thought suppression, people who tried to suppress their prejudice or stereotyping towards a group of people only compounded the feelings of bias. This finding has lots of potential for research into working out methods that people could utilized to overcome their personal biases. The last area of the report that this article will cover is their findings on depression in thought suppression.

“Depression involves a disturbance not only of mood but also of cognition.” (Wenzlaff, & Wegner, 2000).   The report points out that often times with people suffering with depression, the distractions that they try to use to suppress their  depressive thoughts are negative in nature.  This use of a negative thought anchors to the depression inducing further depression.  Their research pointed out that these anchors created during the depressed states could manifest themselves later during non depressive states, reintroducing a depression state.

Other Areas of Study

            The studies of the early pioneers worked on a non physical methods of thought suppression, in a article titled “Thought Suppression” from the nature-nurture web site, it was found that thought suppression was located in the frontal cortex (Unknown, 2006).  Studying the lesioning of the prefrontal cortex could inhibit the retrieval of informations in the long term memories, while this measure would be drastic, it would be a mean to suppress traumatic events in a person’s life that could not be suppressed by other means (Unknown, 2006).  This study also pointed out that working towards thought suppression of ideas could later affect the ability to retrieve the memory in its entirety, rather the memory would be fragmented. This method of course would only be utilized in drastic measures, another possibility is the use of Hypnosis.

In the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, a study titled “Enhancing Thought Suppression with Hypnosis” , researchers conducted a study using thirty-nine high and forty low susceptible to hypnosis subjects in suppressing thoughts with hypnosis.  They found that using hypnosis to suppress embarrassing thoughts greatly enhanced the person’s ability to suppress the thoughts (Bryant, & Wimalaweera, 2010).  On a personal note, I can confirm this fact on using hypnosis to suppress unwanted thoughts.  In 1995 I underwent hypnosis in order to remove a fixation on a certain food using a group hypnosis setting.  As of this date I have not eaten the food that was blocked from my thoughts, while I can think about the item, anchors that would trigger me to overeat this item have been suppressed successfully.  The use of hypnosis dates back to Freud, however because its methods are not totally understood there is still a stigma to using hypnosis in a clinical setting.  Some consider it a form of mind control or new age hocus-pocus and not a valid method of scientific study.  One example is the United States Air Force during the late 1990s and early 2000s would not allow people who underwent hypnosis to participate in the Personal Reliability Program (PRP), for fear that thoughts could be placed in the sub conscious that would be counter to national security interests.     Hopefully this ban has been lifted as the utilization of hypnosis in treating Post Stress Traumatic Disorder (PTSD), could prove beneficial where other tradition methods have failed.

Others have capitalized on the early work of Wegner in additional studies, in an article from Psyblog, Understand your mind, an article was published on “Why Thought Suppression is Counter-Productive”.  This article covers work by Wenger and Gold in 1995 on suppressing emotions and if it was possible.  This study covered a romantic emotion of a “Hot Flame” and “Cold Flame”,  referring to past romantic partners.  They postulated that the hot flame would have more intrusive thoughts than the cold flame. The results were as expected, the cold flames produced less intrusive thoughts than the hot, the theory being that the participates had more experience suppressing the thoughts of the hot flamed partners and less practice not thinking about the cold flames (PsyBlog, 2009).  While these findings are suggesting that perhaps with practice we can control our thoughts, they are counter to earlier studies showing that we are not able to control our thought.  Perhaps the hot flames produced less intrusive thought because the person did think about them more allowing the conscious to file them away naturally.

If we cannot control thought suppression, perhaps there is another way to handle our unwanted thoughts.  In Behaviour Research and Therapy journal an article titled “A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance-based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: a controlled evaluation”, authors Brook Marcks and Douglas Woods found that the key to thought suppression is not in the controlling of thoughts, rather in how we handle the unwanted thoughts.  “Results showed that those who naturally suppress personally relevant intrusive thoughts have more, are more distressed by, and have a greater “urge to do something” about the thoughts, while those who are naturally more accepting of their intrusive thoughts are less obsessional, have lower levels of depression, and are less anxious.” (Marcks, & Woods, 2004).  In pointing out that by trying to suppress our thoughts we are adding to our stress level could be the key to focus on managing our thoughts and feeling instead of trying to suppress them, something that is counter productive to our natural functioning.

In Psychology Today, there is an article titled “This Isn’t What I Expected”, with some good advice on how to handle thought suppression.  Instead of trying to suppress your thoughts embrace them instead.  The Author Kleiman suggests the following: “(a) accepting the presence of some current (perhaps painful) state, and (b) forgiving or embracing one’s own accountability and vulnerability within that state. “ (Kleiman, & Wenzel). This falls inline with the earlier buddhist methodology of confronting the situation head on and the findings by Marcks and Woods in their study of working with the thoughts instead of trying to suppress them.


            The fascination of how the mind works has been a dilemma of western mankind since the days of Aristotle.  Even in today’s world of being able to see a glimpse of the how the mind works using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) (Matlin, 2008), we barely know how the mind works.  It is under this pretense I wonder, perhaps there is a reason we are not able to force ourselves into thought suppression.  Our brains our designed to work in certain way, whether you subscribe to creationism or evolution theory, whoever or whatever designed our minds had a purpose for us to not be able to suppress our thoughts at will.  I consider the process part of our development, and perhaps there is a stage in our live’s where this becomes possible in order to clear our minds to focus on our greater meaning.  Our minds have their own ability to suppress thoughts when faced with severe trauma in some cases.   I myself have experienced this first hand, at thirteen years old I was involved in a near death vehicle accident, most of the memory I cannot recall, my mind suppressed it to protect my psyche from any more damage than necessary.  Early psychologist like Freud related to suppressed memories as a basis for later mental health issues, however because psychology is a soft science, this has never been correlated to any hard evidence.  While the subject of thought suppression is one that has not been solved yet, further research in this area would prove beneficial to helping those who suffer from mental health issues.

Some mental health issues would benefit from a forced thought suppression method.  Those who suffer from deep depression, bi-polar, PSTD and OCD would benefit the most if we can find a method to help them suppress their dark thoughts.  Because these aliments involved in the member having disturbing thoughts that need to be suppressed, the chance to help them subdue their thoughts could aid in their healing.  Hypnosis is one area that needs to be expanded on, even though we do not fully understand it.  The ability to tap into the subconscious in a hypnotic state would allow the clinician to bury those thoughts away from the sub conscious.  Additionally a look into Eastern philosophies might allow us to use meditation as a way to clear our minds of unwanted thoughts.   Because we know so little of the mind, we should not base all of our research in empirical western ideas, we need to expand into all ideas and methodologies of looking at our mind, both conscious and unconscious.

Any break through in these areas of thought suppression need to be handled in a ethical manner.  Any technology has the possibility of being weaponized and used for harmful intentions.  Think of the possibilities if we were able to produce a solid method of thought suppression what Governments could do with it.  The ability to control the masses would have harmful effects on all of mankind.  Looking at today’s world we already suffer from a collective thought suppression system. The media of the world controls the information of the world as we see it, in a format that is easily delivered to the masses.  In the popular book “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury the population is controlled by medication and the television in order to reduce individualism, while this story is science fiction, some of the themes are seen in today’s world.  In article on Aljazeera.net by James Ridgeway titled “Mass Psychosis in the US, How Big Phrama got Americans hooked on anti-psychotic Drugs”, the author points out the staggering use of anti-psychotic drugs in the US, totaling over 14 billion in sales in 2008 (Ridgeway 2001).  Anti-psychotic drugs help to curb unwanted thoughts in patients suffering from some types of psychosis, but this population in the past has always been quite small, according to ridgeway over 20 million subscriptions for the top three anti-psychotics were issued in 2009 (Ridgeway 2009).

Overall we need to remain optimistic and continue in finding ways to help people suffering from illness suppress their thoughts or as suggested by studies in this paper better manage those thoughts.  Whether we stick to our Western thought ideas or expand into Eastern philosophy and other types of study we must continue to strive to learn about how the mind really works.  We need to find a way of studying thought suppression that is not biased towards the laboratory.  In all of the experiments covered in this article, all of them had the bias of the subjects knowing what they were trying to do, this of course taints the outcome of the experiment.  The mere metacognition of thought suppression affects the ability of the tests, as the subject is going to be thinking about thought suppression.  An meta-analysis of people who suppressed trauma natural would be a good area to look at for any patterns that would help us understand how the mind controlled itself naturally.  Additionally large meta-analysis of people who have undergone hypnosis, and their success of failure in the endeavor would also help us understand what works and does not work in the area of thought suppression.

Though this area of study is limited in it’s abilities, I find it highly exciting.  If we are able to really find out how the mind works, and can use the knowledge in an ethical manner the benefits to mental health would be endless.  These achievements in suppression would allow us to treat patients will mental aliments in a natural holistic manner, ending the dependency on using drugs to treat psychological problems.


Burns, D.M. (1994). Buddhist meditation and depth psychology. The Wheel Publication, 88(89), 1-48.

Bryant, R.A, & Wimalaweera, S. (2010). Enhancing thought suppression with hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 54(4), 488-499.

Kleiman, k., & Wenzel, A. (2011). This isn’t what I expected. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/isnt-what-i-expected/201104/get-out-my-head-does-thought-suppression-work

Marcks, B.A, & Woods, D.W. (2004). A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance-based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: a controlled evaluation . Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43(4), 433-445.

Matlin, W. (2008). Cognition, Seventh Edition, Hoboken, N.J.,: Wiley

Psyblog, Initials. (2009, May 22). Why thought suppression is counter-productive. Retrieved from http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/05/why-thought-suppression-is-counter-productive.php

Ridgeway, J. (2011, July 11). Mass psychosis in the us. Retrieved from http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/07/20117313948379987.html

Suzuki, D.T. (1954). An introduction to zen buddhism. New York, NY: Grove Pr.

Wegner, D.M., Schneider, D.J., Carter III, S.R., & White, T.L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13.


Wenzlaff, R.M., & Wegner, D.M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 59-91.

Unknown, . (2006, January 01). Psychotherapy & neuroscience,  Thought Suppression. Retrieved from http://www.nature-nurture.org/index.php/ptsd/terminating-fear-conditioning/thought-suppression/

No CommentsPsychology Tags: ,

No comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.