Social Question

ETpro's avatar

Why is telling someone not to think about something the easiest way to assure they do think about it?

Asked by ETpro (34217 points ) November 7th, 2012

Don’t think about a rose!

You had to picture a rose to do it, didn’t you? Why is that?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

19 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

A what?

I think you should do a test. Tell a group of someones to think about a… whatever it was, and tell another group of someones not to think about it, and see which group does more thinking about….

What were we talking about?

Oooh. A pretty shiny thing….

Never mind.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I had a little different reaction. I thought of a special person in my life that I wanted to send a bouquet of roses to. I have no idea why that connection instantly formed.

thorninmud's avatar

I wonder if this might be connected to the well-documented “negativity bias”. The brain tends to pay more attention to negatives than to positives (a survival advantage, no doubt). By taking the thought of a rose—normally a positive—and framing it instead as a negative, something to be avoided, it may have a more compelling quality.

ninjacolin's avatar

^ some kinda “know thy enemy” protocol? Maybe. But I wouldn’t guess it was a matter of negatives really. I think it’s a matter of hearing the word at all. I didn’t just think of a “rose” alone, after all, I thought about all the relevant images for “don’t” and “thinking” and “and” etc. as well.

Besides, it makes me wonder what the other person’s intentions are. Have to imagine it to complete those thoughts.

Coloma's avatar

Because, what we resist, persists.
Anytime we try to force ourselves to go against a natural impulse, it will strengthen.
Tell the superego “no” and it will fight like a two year old having a tantrum to get it’s way.
Just like a toddler, the best thing to do is to acknowledge it’s demands and then ignore it and it will eventually STFU. lol

LuckyGuy's avatar

Here’s another real world example. I’ve mentioned before that a family friend had consensual sex with his girlfriend 10 days before her 17th birthday and he was over 21. In NY that is Rape 3rd. As part of his probation/parole he was not permitted to contact her in any way and many not even be within 1000 feet of where she lives and works. The problem is the geniuses at Dept of Justice won’t say where she lives or works to protect her privacy, so he has to guess where he thinks she lives and works based upon the monitor saying he is in or out of the exclusion zone. He gets a report from his PO like: “I see that you were in the exclusion zone 4 times last week.” He says please tell where I can’t be so I don’t make the mistake?” The PO says: “Oh it’s OK. You were going 40 mph.”
Don’t think of a stupid situation.

mazingerz88's avatar

Because asking someone not to think about something is akin to a painter making a single stroke on his canvass. It sticks.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Simple reverse psychology.

gailcalled's avatar

There is a line somewhere in an ancient (published in 1901), little-read children’s book called Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. On one occasions, as she leaves the house, Mrs. Wiggs says to her children, “While I am out, don’t put beans up your nose.”

I’ll let you guess.

Scratch that; the source may be Louise May Alcott’s “Little Men,” published in 1871.

tom_g's avatar

Could it have something to do with language?

“Don’t think of a sailboat.”

Comprehending the above sentence seems to require that I translate the word “sailboat” into a concept that brings with it images, etc. So, maybe it’s that simply comprehending the request, “Don’t think of a sailboat,” requires the brain to think of a sailboat.

But it does seem to be more than that. Because a coworker just made a statement about coffee. I have not – to my knowledge – been thinking about coffee. But if I was told that I shouldn’t think of coffee at all today, I’d likely be thinking about coffee. I noticed this when I first started meditating. I would attempt to focus on the breath. And when a thought would arise, I would immediately try to squash it (“Don’t think of the work demo I have to do tomorrow.”) and come back to the breath. But I quickly learned that the buried thought would rush back and be even stronger. The level of rumination increased with my attempts to just “not think of” the thought. What I found to be a useful approach was to acknowledge the thought, and without judgement observe my mind thinking the thought. It seemed (for me) to take the power away from the thought itself and towards the internal processes and related emotions that supply power to thoughts.

Is there a hypothetical evolutionary reason anyone knows about?

flutherother's avatar

They used to tell people with post traumatic stress not to let their mind dwell on the cause. It didn’t work and I can see why.

ucme's avatar

Devil’s advocate.

ETpro's avatar

I believe @tom_g has nailed the accurate answer, but each and every answer contributes to the understanding of the power of a negative command. And @LuckyGuy, there is nothing more absurd than the machinations of a police state.

@gailcalled I don’t know about children, but telling me not to put beans up my nose I can comply with. Telling me not to “think” about putting beans up my nose, I can’t manage. Dart. I wish I could.

Sunny2's avatar

@gailcalled From a song from musical, The Fantastics: Why did the kids put beans in their ears? No one can hear with beans in their ears. Then, all at once, the reason appears. They did it ‘cause we said, “NO!”

gailcalled's avatar

@Sunny2: Good memory. I had forgotten. Didn’t that run for about 50 years in NYC?

Anyone reading this not thinking about the sensation of a pinto bean in a nostril?

Coloma's avatar

I have never inserted a pinto bean into my nostril, however, as a kid we used to shoot pussy willow buds out of our noses at each other. Until my friend Gail inhaled a PWB and had to visit the doctor and his 10 inch nose forceps for extraction. lol

Sunny2's avatar

@gailcalled Yes, indeed. I loved that show; saw it several times over the years; and still know most of the words and music.

ETpro's avatar

@Coloma Now that’s a picture I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about any time soon!

gailcalled's avatar

MIlo here; At least, with the Gail who hangs around here, she has me with my nine-inch nails, as efficient a forceps as any medical devise.

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