For most people, trying to avoid thinking unwanted, repeating thoughts is a common experience. A cue can frequently bring back unwanted memories or ideas repeatedly. In addition to removing unfavorable associations from their minds, people need to ensure that these unwanted associations do not keep coming again and again in an endless loop and do not become stronger and stronger over time.
People frequently reactively reject and replace an unwanted thought after it has already occurred to avoid it. However, actively avoiding associations in the first place can be considerably more effective and help stop the unwanted thoughts from looping over and over again, suggests a new study by Isaac Fradkin and Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
In the latest study, researchers looked at the associations that 80 English-speaking people made with common words. Each participant had to type the word that they saw on the screen. People in one group set out to suppress their thoughts of previous words they had entered because they had been informed beforehand that they would not obtain monetary bonuses if they repeated associations.
Based on reaction times and how effective participants generated new associations, the researchers used computational approaches to model how people avoided repeated associations. Most people, they found, use reactive control – rejecting unwanted associations after they have already come to mind.
Researchers noted, “This type of reactive control can be particularly problematic because, as our findings suggest, thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the probability that it will recur. In other words, every time we have to reject an unwanted association reactively, it has the potential to become even stronger. Critically, however, we also found that people can partially preempt this process if they want to ensure that this thought comes to mind as little as possible.”
Fradkin said, “Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could ensure that thinking an unwanted thought does not increase the probability of it coming to mind again. Whereas the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts.”