Ironic Process Theory

marshmallow man

Ironic processing is the psychological process whereby an individual’s deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts (thought suppression) render those thoughts more persistent.

The theory describes two opposing mechanisms (dual process theory as pertaining to social cognition). The first unconsciously and automatically monitors for occurrences (monitoring processes) of the unwanted thought, calling upon the second (conscious operating processes) should the thought begin to intrude. This explains the effects of increased cognitive load by emphasizing that where there is cognitive effort, the monitoring process may supplant the conscious process, also suggesting that in order for thought suppression to be effective, a balance between the two processes must exist, with the cognitive demand not being so great as to let the monitoring process interrupt the conscious processes.

In certain domains, such as memorization, it appears that ironic effects of attempting to remember vary with the level of mental control over mnemonic processing and may be due simply to implementation of ineffective mental strategies.

The phenomenon has been identified through thought suppression studies in experimental psychology. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues first studied thought suppression in a laboratory setting in 1987 by instructing participants to avoid all thoughts of a white bear. The typical finding in such experiments is that suppressing thoughts of a white bear causes the frequent return of such thoughts, sometimes even yielding a tendency to obsess about the very thought that is being suppressed. The implications for these findings have since been applied in clinical settings where thought suppression is quite common (e.g., trying not to think of one’s problems or other anxiety-producing or depressing thoughts).

Cognitive overload inhibits successful activation of operating processes within the mind. Such overload has been shown to occur experimentally, when individuals attempt to aggressively suppress intrusive thoughts by distracting themselves—either by focusing on different environmental objects, or thinking of anything but the thought in question. (Overload is also believed to occur in daily life as a result of mental pressures, anxieties, stresses and so forth). The monitoring process, serving to alert the individual of an unwanted thought about to become salient and intrude on his or her consciousness, continues to find instances of the unwanted thought creating a state of hyperaccessibility unchecked by controlled cognitive processes. Research has also shown that individuals do have a capacity to successfully suppress thoughts by focusing on specifically prepared distractions or objects—a process in thought suppression experiments sometimes referred to as ‘focused distraction.’

According to Wegner, ‘Mental control occurs when people suppress a thought, concentrate on a sensation, inhibit an emotion, maintain a mood, stir up a desire, squelch a craving, or otherwise exert influence on their own mental states.’ Thus, intentional memory processes and their associated mneumonic strategies can be viewed as one form of mental control. Mental control, in the form of mnemonic strategies, is exercised when we attempt to exert influence over our faculties of memory.’

Similar ideas appear throughout popular culture and sayings, often with variations on animal and color, such as ‘It’s as hard as trying not to think of a pink rhinoceros.’ American cognitive linguist George Lakoff tells his cognitive science students, ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant,’ resulting in his students thinking of exactly this. Ironic process theory is also the basis for the mind game known simply as ‘The Game’ which constitutes trying not to think about the Game.

In film, the theory is used by the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to explain the ideas of ‘inception’ to the character played by Ken Watanabe in the 2010 film ‘Inception.’ At the end of ‘Ghostbusters,’ the characters are asked to think of a form for the coming of Gozer. They instruct each other not to think of anything, which sees one of the team, Ray, thinking of what he considers to be an innocuous thought of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who then terrorizes them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.