A veritable goldmine of material popped up on Psyblog the other day, in their list of “8 Ironic Effects of Thought Suppression.” The tag line reads, “the more we try to avoid screwing up when stressed, the more likely it becomes,” and they have assembled an impressive group of studies to back up their claim. The proper psychological term for the phenomenon is “reactance” and like many such phenomenons, theologians have been well acquainted with it for ages. This is nothing more, or less, than an inventory of the ways that our attempts to manage our inner lives create the very things we are trying to control. This is the Should stimulating the Shouldn’t, the Law increasing (or simply conjuring up) the trespass, the Garden of Eden playing itself out in any number of seemingly mundane situations. I’ve reproduced my favorite five, as well as a sermon by John Zahl about the very same phenomenon. As a side-note, dream life remains my favorite trump card in the whole self-improvement/sanctification debate – as true a spiritual litmus test as exists, AKA the subconscious doing what it will, immune to moral or religious positioning, ht JD:

1. Forbidden romance

In one study participants were told to play footsie with a stranger during a card game (Wegner et al., 1994). The twist was that some pairs were specifically told to hide their under-the-table-action while others weren’t.

The results showed that playing secret footsie made people more attracted to each other than blatant footsie. When they tried to suppress their attraction, it actually came back stronger.

That’s why it can be difficult to get rid of thoughts of an old flame at exactly the wrong moment. And the more we push down on these kinds of intrusive thoughts, the more they come back.

2. Faux pas

In a classic episode of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, the hotel’s proprietor, Basil Fawlty is serving a group of Germans and trying to avoid mentioning the war. The more he tries to avoid it, the more he keeps mentioning it. If you’ve seen it, it’ll be seared across your memory; if not Google it and you’ll never forget it.

It’s a perfect example of how, when under pressure and specifically trying to avoid mentioning something, it can still find a way out.

In a study by Lane et al. (2006) exactly this phenomenon was observed. Participants were more likely to give a fact away when they were specifically told to keep it secret than when they were given no such instruction.

5. Feeling down

Our emotions are just as prone to ironic effects as our cognitions. Unfortunately when people try to suppress a depressed mood, they often find it comes back with a vengeance.

For this reason standard psychological therapies avoid thought suppression and try to focus on distraction and acceptance (Beevers et al., 1999).

7. Can’t sleep…

Everyone who has ever tried to force themselves to get to sleep knows it’s impossible. The harder you consciously try to fall asleep quickly, the longer you stay awake.

This is exactly what researchers find in the sleep lab (Ansfield et al., 1996). That’s why it’s called falling asleep or dropping off—it’s as though you have to do it by accident.

8. …bad dreams

Here’s a tip if you want to control your dreams: people are more likely to dream about subjects they are specifically trying to avoid (Schmidt & Gendola, 2008). Whether they are emotional or neutral topics, using suppression will make them more likely to turn up in your dreams.

The question is whether you can successfully convince yourself you don’t want to have a really delicious, engrossing dream!