Ironic Process Theory

Ironic Process Theory. Psychology Fanatic article header image.

Ironic process theory, also known as the white Bear Principle refers to the psychological process that suggests that deliberate attempts to suppress specific thoughts actually make those very thoughts more likely to surface. Scientist theorize we must hold the idea in memory that we purposely wish to suppress.

The phenomenon was identified in suppression studies conducted by Daniel Wegner in 1987. While the principle is cute when practiced by trying not to think about a “white bear,” the principle looses is warm fuzziness when the ironic process impacts attempts to suppress socially inappropriate thoughts that lead to horrendous crimes.

Wegner theorizes that “any attempt at mental control brings with it the ironic operation of mental monitoring processes that are likely to undermine that control. When a person tries to suppress a thought, the intention to sup- press may introduce an automatic, unconscious mental process that searches for that very thought in an effort to monitor whether the suppression has been successful” (1994).

Wegner suggests believes that the ironic process principle “will cause people to do the worst possible thing or whatever is precisely the opposite of what they want” (Baumeister, et al. 1994). Perhaps, this why suppression of anger typically has so many adverse affects.

Sleeping Problems and The ironic Process Theory

Sarah Wilson refers to the ironic process theory in connection to anxiety and sleeping problems. She wrote that, “sleep deprivation fires up the same abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. Worse, the already-anxious are more affected by this mimicking pattern.” She explains further, “trying to sleep by attempting to eliminate negative thoughts upon hitting the pillow, or trying not to panic about how you haven’t slept in three days, or whatever mind control you’ve been told to try, only succeeds in triggering an internal monitoring process that watches to see if you’re succeeding. Which keeps you awake” (2018, Kindle location 479).

This is ironic process theory in action. We must hold in memory the thing we are trying to suppress so we can set off an alarm when it comes to mind. Our mind is tasked with holding something in memory at the same time as we are asking it not to think about it.

New age social media wellness coaches often encourage clients to not think “negative” thoughts. According to the ironic process theory this advice also might encourage the very negativity it is trying to extinguish.

Doubling Down

I wonder if our tendency to double down on failed attempts to change our thoughts by suppressing negative thoughts creates a cycle that just progressively leads to more failure. Sometimes, we must try something new. Suppression alone is not a successful endeavor. Many psychologists suggest mindfulness, non-judgmental acceptance, is a better path. If we fail with suppression efforts, we should give mindfulness a try.

A Few Words From Psychology Fanatic

While the white bear problem is intriguing, and probably true under some circumstances, it is unlikely the ironic process theory is generalizable to all situations. Many goals need to be held in consciousness to keep behaviors on track. Rehearsing some of the damaging impacts of addiction may enhance motivation to prevent relapse. On other other hand, trying to force all thoughts of drug usage from the mind may indeed backfire, keeping the struggling person in recovery trapped in ruminating about the very thing they wish to avoid.

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Baumeister, Roy F.; Heatherton, Todd F.; Tice, Dianne M. (1994) Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. Academic Press; 1st edition.

Wilson, Sarah (2018). First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety. Dey Street Books.

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