Monday, August 23, 2010

I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke

Try not to think of a white bear and what happens?

You end up thinking of a white bear.

This idea that suppressing thoughts makes them rebound stronger is well-established in psychology

James Erskine et al investigated the effects of suppressing thoughts of smoking in everyday life on the number of cigarettes subsequently smoked.

Numerous studies demonstrate that suppressing negative or even neutral thoughts can have a rebound effect. Therefore, a person who suppresses a thought may end up thinking about the suppressed thought more frequently than if he or she had not attempted suppression. [Wegner DM, Schneider DJ, Carter SR, White TL. (1987) Paradoxical effects of thoughts suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.]

Despite considerable evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of thought suppression in achieving mental control, and the almost ubiquitous negative effects associated with the technique, thought suppression remains a widely used self-control strategy.

Thus, while avoiding thoughts of cigarettes helps reduce smokers' intake at first, it may actually trigger a subsequent increase in the behavior.

Eighty five smokers, who smoked at least ten cigarettes a day, took part in the study. They were split into three groups and asked to monitor their daily cigarette intake and stress levels over a 3-week period.

In Week 1 and Week 3, participants monitored intake and stress. During Week 2, in addition to monitoring intake and stress, participants in the experimental groups either suppressed or expressed smoking thoughts, whereas the control group continued monitoring. The results showed a clear behavioral rebound: The suppression group smoked significantly more in Week 3 than the expression or control group did.

Dr Erskine said: "The fact that the suppression group smoked less in the second week shows that this method may be effective in reducing unwanted behaviour in the short term. But this actually isn't helpful, as smokers might then think that thought suppression is a useful strategy in quitting smoking.

"In this case, we asked the suppression group to stop suppressing in week three, but the rebound effect should be the same whether it is deliberate, or whether other real life factors cause someone to stop suppressing thoughts of smoking. In real life, it can be hard to continue suppressing your thoughts.

"Although the differences in the number of cigarettes smoked from week to week may seem small, we know that habitual smokers are remarkably consistent in how many they smoke. So, even a small difference can be considered significant.

"Knowing what techniques not to use should lead to better understanding of what methods of quitting do work."

Smokers Trying to Give Up: Don't Stop Thinking About Cigarettes

Journal Reference:

Erskine JA, Georgiou GJ, Kvavilashvili L. I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke: Effects of Thought Suppression on Smoking Behavior. Psychological Science, 2010 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]

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