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The rebound effect is one of the psychological phenomena that most influences our lives. It is also one of the most unknown. So we fall into its network over and over again. We let it to take away from us our mental balance. And we allow it to make us make bad decisions because we are not aware of its influence.
What is the Rebound Effect?
“Have you been able to not think about the white bear? Try imposed task not think of a polar bear and see the animal cursed every minute”, wrote Fyodor Dostoievski in “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” in 1863.
More than a century later science proved him right. Daniel Wegner, a social psychologist at Harvard University, discovered for first the rebound effect more than 25 years ago. He said that phrase caught his attention and became an enigma that he couldn’t stop thinking about, so he decided to check if it was true.
He devised a simple experiment: he asked participants to verbalize what they were thinking for five minutes, while trying not to think about a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, they should ring the bell. Despite explicit instructions to avoid thinking about the white bear, participants thought about the animal more than once a minute, on average.
Then Wegner asked them to do the same exercise, but this time intentionally trying to think of a white bear. At that point, participants thought of the white bear even more often than a different group, who had been told that they could think of the white bear from the start. In other words, they had not been subjected to the condition of suppression of thought.
Their results suggested that suppressing thought for just five minutes caused that image to “rebound” more intensely in the minds of the participants later. That experiment laid the groundwork for the Rebound Effect.
The Rebound Effect occurs when we force ourselves to avoid something. Then that image or thought is reaffirmed in our consciousness, attracting us precisely towards what we want to avoid. It is a paradoxical process, as Wegner himself described it, since it is very difficult to contain unwanted thoughts.
Psychological Mechanism: Why can’t we get an idea out of our mind?
The psychological mechanism behind the Rebound Effect is very simple: when we try not to think about something, a part of our mind becomes a kind of “guardian” to avoid forbidden thinking.
The problem is that this part is activated from time to time to “verify” that we are not thinking about it. At that very moment, the unwanted idea re-enters our mind as a result of the constant scrutiny process we undergo. The mind becomes hypervigilant and sets a trap for us.
That is, at least in part, the explanation why we can’t get our ex-partner out of our heads, why we can’t stop thinking about sweets when we are on a diet or why that worry we want to get rid of haunts us every night. Everything that we resist to will reappear with more force.
The Rebound Effect undermines our decisions and behaviors
The rebound effect is not limited to generating unwanted images or thoughts, it directly influences our decisions and behaviors. In 2010 psychologists from the University of London conducted an experiment in which they observed the effects of suppressing thoughts about chocolate.
They asked a third of the participants to think about chocolate, another third had to try to suppress their thoughts about chocolate, and the rest were told nothing. Everyone had to record their thoughts throughout the experiment.
Later all the participants had the task of rating chocolate of various qualities according to its flavor. The researchers, however, were not interested in rating, but in the amount of chocolate they ate. They found that those who tried to suppress their thoughts about chocolate ate much more.
The suppression not only led to a rebound phenomenon on thoughts of chocolate, it also intensified the urge to eat. That effect was even more noticeable in people who were already on a diet and tried to avoid their daily intake.
Those same researchers conducted another experiment that shows us the hidden strength of the rebound phenomenon. On that occasion they undertook a larger study with smokers. Participants recorded the number of cigarettes they smoked over three weeks, taking the first week as the basis for evaluating the average cigarette consumption.
In the second week, some smokers were instructed to try to suppress smoking thoughts, others were told to think about smoking as often as possible, and the control group simply continued to record the nuimber of cigarette smoked.
The good new? The suppression led to a decrease in cigarette smoking during the second week in smokers who had to suppress their thoughts about smoking. The bad new? There was a significant rebound effect in the third week.
These experiments make it clear that “Don’t think about it” is a bad advice. The more we try to suppress a thought, the stronger it will appear later, causing us to make bad decisions.
These poor decisions are likely due, at least in part, to mental breakdown. When we must be constantly alert to repress a thought or avoid certain behavior, that level of scrutiny and attention ends up screwing us cognitively. It is as if we were consuming our share of self-control, so that when we can’t take it anymore, the floodgates open completely. However, that does not mean that we are completely at the mercy of rebound effect.
Unwanted thoughts also sneak into dreams
The rebound effect is not limited to consciousness, the repressed content during the day can also appear in dreams. Wegner himself designed an experiment in which he asked some people to write down what they were thinking five minutes before going to bed.
Some were told that they should suppress their thoughts about another person, others that they thought precisely of that person and the latter could write freely. These pre-sleep references led participants to dream more about the person in question, but that effect was even more pronounced when they consciously attempted to suppress thoughts.
That rebound effect in dreams is because when we sleep we lose the self-control that we normally exercise consciously, so that the repressed elements are more likely to reappear. Therefore, if we are trying to quit, we probably dream of smoking. And if we want to forget about a former partner, it is likely that this will reappear continuously in our dreams.
One factor that plays in favor of the rebound effect of dreams is the changes that occur in the prefrontal lobes when we sleep, especially in the phase of rapid eye movements. Repressed thoughts are more accessible during REM sleep as the efficiency of the operating processes decreases. This makes thoughts just before bedtime more available and increases the search activity for these suppressed content, as a study by the University of New South Wales revealed.
Rebound Effect: How to avoid it?
Wegner himself suggests different strategies to avoid the Rebound Effect and “suppress white bears”:
1. Choose a good distracting element that absorbs your attention and focus on it. In one of his experiments, Wegner himself asked people to think of a red Volkswagen instead of suppressing the thought of the white bear. And it worked! Of course, that doesn’t mean we should be thinking always about a red Volkswagen, but looking for a positive alternative thought that we can focus our mind on, so that the unwanted idea will disappear on its own.
2. Postpone thinking. Although it may seem banal, the truth is that setting a time to think about the concerns that bother us usually works. This way at least we will avoid that they haunt our mind day and night. The strategy is very simple: instead of getting angry when an unwanted idea comes to mind, we should simply say to ourselves: “I am going to think about it in a little while, whe I finished what I am doing.” In this way the emotional importance is diminished, which will help it not to fix itself more strongly on our consciousness.
3. Exposure. According to Wegner, if we allow ourselves to think in a controlled way about what we want to avoid, that content will be less likely to reappear in our minds further. In this way we would be deactivating that mechanism of constant self-scrutiny that reactivates the unwanted idea, at the same time that we could minimize its emotional impact by becoming sufficiently familiar with it.
4. Reduce multitasking. A study at Flinders University concluded that “Cognitive load appears to undermine the suppressive capacity of thought”, so we experience more intrusions. That means that when we are mentally overloaded, full of responsibilities, overwhelmed and stressed, those unwanted thoughts are more likely to reappear in our consciousness. Reducing the rhythm of our life, therefore, would help us avoid the rebound effect.
5. Trascendental Meditation. In part, unwanted thoughts are so fixed by the negative emotions they generate. With Trascedental Meditation, not only do we gain greater mental control, but we learn not to give so much importance to those thoughts because we know that, if we do not cling to them, they will go as they came. In fact, an experiment conducted at the University of Washington found that trascendental meditation was an effective technique to avoid unwanted thoughts about alcohol and help people reduce its consumption.
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