Mental Control and Ironic Processes

How do people control their own minds? The simple strategy of directing attention can often be helpful, as people can stop thoughts, concentrate, improve their moods, relax, fall asleep, and otherwise control their mental states just by trying to direct their thoughts. These strategies of mental control can sometimes backfire, however, producing not only the failure of control but the very mental states we are trying to avoid. The theory of ironic processes of mental control (Wegner, 1994, 2009) holds that any intentional control of the mind introduces an operating process that directs conscious attention--focusing our minds on positive thoughts, for example, if we are hoping to improve our mood. This process is accompanied, however, by an ironic monitoring process that looks for the failure of our intention. Such monitoring can, when we are stressed or under mental load, actually promote the unwanted mental state--for example, making us sad when we want to be happy. Ironic processes were first discovered in the study of thought suppression, where unwanted thoughts can return merely because we try not to think about them. But ironic processes seem to underly a variety of unwanted mental states, from obsession and depression to anxiety and insomnia, and can produce unwanted actions in sports and performance settings as well.

Publications

  • Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 66, 671-680.
  • Najmi, S., Reese, H., Wilhelm, S., Fama, J., Beck, C., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Learning the futility of the thought suppression enterprise in normal experience and in obsessive compulsive disorder. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 38, 1-14.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2010). When you put things out of mind, where do they go? In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology in the real world (pp. 114-120). New York: Worth.
  • Najmi, S., Riemann, B. C., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Managing unwanted intrusive thoughts in obsessive compulsive disorder: Relative effectiveness of suppression, distraction, and acceptance. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47, 494-503.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Hidden complications of thought suppression. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2, 210-223.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 325, 48-51.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). Thought suppression and psychopathology. In A. Elliott (Ed.), Handbook of approach and avoidance motivation (pp. 447-459). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Kozak, M., Sternglanz, W., Viswanathan, U., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The role of thought suppression in building mental blocks. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 1123-1130.
  • Najmi, S., & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The gravity of unwanted thoughts: Asymmetric priming effects in thought suppression. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 114-124.
  • Najmi, S., Wegner, D. M., & Nock, M. K. (2007). Thought suppression and self-injurious thoughts and behaviors. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1957-1965.
  • Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Response to Comment on "Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought." Science, 317, 43c.
  • Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science, 315, 393-395.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Heatherton, T. F., Kelley, W. M., Wyland, C. L., Wegner, D. M., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Separating sustained from transient aspects of cognitive control during thought suppression. Psychological Science, 18, 292-297.
  • Sparrow, B., & Wegner, D. M. (2006). Unpriming: The deactivation of thoughts through expression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 1009-1019.
  • Wegner, D. M., Wenzlaff, R. M., & Kozak, M.. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in dreams. Psychological Science, 15, 232-236.
  • Wegner, D. M. (2003). Thought suppression and mental control. In Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, (pp. 395-397). London: Macmillan.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Schneider, D. J. (2003). The white bear story. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 326-329.
  • Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). The hidden costs of hidden stigma. In T. F. Heatherton, R. E. Kleck, M. R. Hebl, & J. G. Hull (Eds.), The social psychology of stigma (pp. 220-242). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. In S. T. Fiske (Ed.), Annual review of psychology (Vol. 51, pp. 59-91). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.
  • Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (1999). Covering up what can't be seen: Concealable stigmas and mental control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 474-486.
  • Wegner, D. M., Ansfield, M. E., & Pilloff, D. (1998). The putt and the pendulum: Ironic effects of the mental control of action. Psychological Science, 9, 196-199.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Bargh, J. A. (1998). Control and automaticity in social life. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed, Vol. 1, pp. 446-496). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (1998). The role of mental processes in the failure of inhibition. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 231-233.
  • Hodges, S., & Wegner, D. M. (1997). Automatic and controlled empathy. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Empathic accuracy (pp. 311-339). New York: Guilford.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the antidote is the poison: Ironic mental control processes. Psychological Science, 8, 148-150.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1997). Why the mind wanders. In J. D. Cohen & J. W. Schooler (Eds.), Scientific approaches to consciousness (pp. 295-315). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Wegner, D. M., Broome, A., & Blumberg, S. J. (1997). Ironic effects of trying to relax under stress. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35, 11-21.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Smart, L. (1997). Deep cognitive activation: A new approach to the unconscious. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 984-995.
  • Ansfield, M., & Wegner, D. M. (1996). The feeling of doing. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. S. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 482-506). New York: Guilford.
  • Ansfield, M. E., Wegner, D. M., & Bowser, R. (1996). Ironic effects of sleep urgency. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34, 523-531.
  • Erber, R., Wegner, D. M., & Thierrault, N. (1996). On being cool and collected: Mood regulation in anticipation of social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 757-766.
  • Wegner, D. M., Quillian, F., & Houston, C. E. (1996). Memories out of order: Thought suppression and the disturbance of sequence memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 680-691.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Wenzlaff, R. M. (1996). Mental control. In E. T. Higgins & A. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic mechanisms and processes (pp. 466-492). New York: Guilford.
  • Gold, D. B., & Wegner, D. M. (1995). The origins of ruminative thought: Trauma, incompleteness, nondisclosure, and suppression. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 1245-1261.
  • Houston, C., & Wegner, D. M. (1995). Mental control. In A. S. R. Manstead & M. Hewstone (Eds.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (pp. 379-381). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lane, J. D., & Wegner, D. M. (1995). The cognitive consequences of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 237-253.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Gold, D. B. (1995). Fanning old flames: Emotional and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 782-792.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1994). Pink elephant tramples white bear: The evasion of suppression. Psycoloquy, 5(40).
  • Wegner, D. M., & Zanakos, S. (1994). Chronic thought suppression. Journal of Personality, 62, 615-640.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Erber, R. E. (1993). Social foundations of mental control. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 36-56). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Wegner, D. M., Erber, R., & Zanakos, S. (1993). Ironic processes in the mental control of mood and mood-related thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1093-1104.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1993). Changing our minds: An introduction to mental control. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 1-12). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Pennebaker, J. W. (Eds.) (1993). Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1992). You can't always think what you want: Problems in the suppression of unwanted thoughts. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, (Vol. 25, pp. 193-225). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Erber, R. (1992). The hyperaccessibility of suppressed thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 903-912.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1988). Stress and mental control. In S. Fisher & J. Reason (Eds.), Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health (pp. 685-699). Chichester: Wiley.
  • Wegner, D. M., & Schneider, D. J. (1989). Mental control: The war of the ghosts in the machine. In J. Uleman & J. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 287-305). New York: Guilford Press. Reprinted in R. P. Honeck (Ed.) (1995). Introductory Readings for Cognitive Psychology, Third Edition. Guilford, CT: Dushkin.
  • Wenzlaff, R. M., Wegner, D. M., & Roper, D. (1988). Depression and mental control: The resurgence of unwanted negative thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 882-892.
  • Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.