Don’t Say Don’t

by F.

It turns out that asking someone not to do something can make it more likely that the person will, in fact, do it. This phenomenon is explained by the theory of ironic processes of mental control that Daniel M. Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, has developed. Wegner’s research suggests a better way to teach—yourself or someone else.

Wegner’s original experiments focused on thought suppression—specifically, trying to get a subject not to think of a white bear. The subjects were isolated in a laboratory room, seated at a table with a microphone and a bell. They were then to spend five minutes saying everything that came to mind. Afterward, the experimenter asked the person to continue, but this time, not to think of a white bear. What happened? The subjects thought of the white bear repeatedly and rang the bell. “A part of the mind,” Wegner says, “is looking for the white bear even as we are trying not to think about it.”

After this, the experimenters told the subjects to relax—to go ahead and think of a white bear. This had a curious effect: those who had tried to suppress white bear-thoughts tended to think about the white bear more than those who hadn’t tried to suppress them. “The irony,” says Wegner, “is not only that people found it hard to suppress a thought in the first place, but that the attempt to do this made them especially inclined to become absorbed with the thought later on.”

This effect isn’t confined to white bears. People trying to be happy get more depressed, people trying to sleep stay awake, and people trying to concentrate become distracted. According to Wegner, “the mind appears to search, unconsciously and automatically, for whatever thought, action, or emotion the person is trying to control.” This defeats our attempts at controlling our mental states.

But there is a sort of solution. In order to avoid this ironic effect, accentuate the positive. Focus on what to do. You can still ensure you don’t do something by having a goal that is incompatible with doing what you don’t want to.

It seems to me that there is a business opportunity here: translation of how-not-to books into how-to books. A search on Amazon reveals the following titles that could probably be more effective if translated:

  • How Not to Audition
  • Now Not to Come Second: the Art of Winning Business Pitches
  • How Not to Stay Single After 40
  • How Not to Write
  • How Not to Program in C++
  • How Not to be a Little Old Lady
  • How Not to Look Fat

And there are many, many more in the results list that is returned when you put “How Not To” into the Amazon search mechanism.

I wonder as well about the different skills related to making something as opposed to critiquing it. “How Not To” book writers, from my limited experience, seem more like critics than makers, and these skill-sets seem to be independent much of the time. I’ve certainly known people who were very good at pointing out flaws in things but could never actually make anything themselves. And vice versa. Software testers often don’t make very good software engineers, from what friends tell me.

More can be found in: Wegner, D. M. 1989. White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. New York; Viking Penguin; Wegner, D.M. 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Both of these books are wonderful.

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