When trying to avoid an unwanted thought, people often reject and replace the thought after it occurs. But proactively avoiding an association in the first place can be much more effective and help prevent the repeated loop of unwanted thoughts, according to a new study published on July 14.th in PLOS computational biology by Isaac Fradkin and Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Trying to stop thinking unwanted repetitive thoughts is a familiar experience for most people. Often, a cue can repeatedly evoke unwanted thoughts or memories. In addition to the need to expel unwanted associations from their minds, people need to make sure that these unwanted associations do not keep coming back again and again in an endless loop and do not get stronger and stronger over time.
In the new study, researchers examined how 80 English-speaking adults came up with new associations to common words. All participants saw words on a screen and had to write an associated word. People in a group were told in advance that they would not receive cash bonuses if they repeated associations, so they sat down to suppress the thoughts of previous words they had input.
Based on reaction times and how effective the participants were at creating new associations, the researchers used computational approaches to model how people avoided repeated associations. Most people, they found, use reactive control – and reject unwanted associations after they have already come to mind. “This type of reactive control can be particularly problematic,” the authors say, “because, as our results suggest, thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the likelihood that it will repeat itself. In other words, every time, we must reactively reject an unwanted association, has the potential to become even stronger.However, critically we have also found that people can partially anticipate this process if they want to ensure that this thought comes to mind as little as possible. “
Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could ensure that thinking an unwanted thought does not increase the likelihood that it will come to mind again. While the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts. “
Isaac Fradkin, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Fradkin, I & Eldar, E., (2022) If you do not shut it in, you do not have to get it out: Thought prevention as a method of controlling unwanted thoughts. PLOS computational biology. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010285.