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The White Bear Phenomenon is a demonstration of the difficulty people have in suppressing a thought — by trying not to think of something, we find we continually think it (Wegner, 1989). The term originated with Fyodor Dostoevsky in this quote from Winter notes on summer impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
The White Bear 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).
- Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin.
- Wegner, Daniel M. & Schneider, David J. (2003). The white bear story, Psychological Inquiry, 14, 326-329
- Wegner, Daniel M., Schneider, David J., Carter, S.R. III, & White, T.L., Paradoxical effects of thought suppression, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, 53, 636-647
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