When trying to avoid an unwanted thought, people often subconsciously reject and replace it as soon as it appears.
But proactively avoiding an association in the first place can be much more efficient, as well as assist in preventing the repetitive looping of bad thoughts. This is according to a new peer-reviewed study published in PLOS Computational Biology by Isaac Fradkin, PhD, and Dr. Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Trying to stop thinking unwanted repetitive thoughts is a familiar experience to most people. Often, a cue can repeatedly evoke unwanted thoughts or memories.
In addition to the need to expel unwanted associations from their mind, people have to make sure they don't keep coming back in an endless loop and become more prominent over time.
Researchers examined how 80 English-speaking adults came up with new associations to common words. All participants viewed words on a screen and had to type a word they have associated with them.
In one group, subjects were told in advance that they would not receive monetary bonuses if they repeated associations, so they attempted to suppress the thoughts of previous words they had already provided.
Based on reaction times and how effective participants were at generating new associations, the researchers used computational approaches to model how people were avoiding using them.
Most people, researchers found, use reactive control – rejecting unwanted associations after they have already come to mind.
“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," the researchers explained.
"In other words, every time we have to reactively reject an unwanted association, 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,” they wrote.
“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. “Whereas the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts.”
“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.”Isaac Fradkin