Study Assesses How People Control Unwanted Thoughts


Reactively rejecting an unwanted thought may make it more likely to recur, as it increases the occurrence of that thought even if the goal is to replace it.

Although reactively rejecting an unwanted thought is a common natural human response to such an occurrence, proactively avoiding a negative association with the unwanted thought in the first place may provide more long-lasting prevention, according to research published in PLOS Computational Biology that was written by Fradkin Isaac and Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Fradkin and Eldar explain in the article that by reacting negatively to an unwanted thought and attempting to replace it with a different thought, a negative association is made in the brain with the original unwanted thought, the association of which can lead to the repetitive looping of that thought in greater succession. The increasing occurrence of such repetitive thoughts may have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life, which can result in the development of obsessive compulsive disorder.

In the new study, the investigators assessed the impact of associations connected with words by asking 80 English-speaking adults to come up with new associations to common words. In order to assess this impact, participants were asked to type an associated word to each word they were shown on a screen. In one of the study groups, investigators told participants ahead of time they would not receive monetary bonuses if they repeated a word association multiple times, incentivizing the participants to suppress the thinking of previous words they had already input as associations.

In order to assess reaction times and the ability of participants to generate new associations, the investigators used a computational analysis to model how people avoided repeating associations. Based on their assessment, the investigators found most of the participants used reactive control to avoid thinking of an unwanted word, specifically by rejecting unwanted associations after they had already come to their minds.

The authors noted that reactive control through rejection of a thought can be particularly problematic because thoughts are self-reinforcing. The study results demonstrate that by thinking a thought, both the memory strength of that thought and the probability that it will recur increases. This means that every time a study participant thinks about reactively rejecting an unwanted word association, they increase the amount they are thinking of that word by rejecting it and the potential to think of it again becomes even stronger, according to the study authors. Critically, however, the authors noted that there are methods by which participants can partially preempt the process if they want to ensure the 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 probability of it coming to mind again," Fradkin said in a press release. "Whereas the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts."


Research probes how people control unwanted thoughts. PLOS Computational Biology; July 14, 2022. Accessed July 25, 2022.

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