Don’t think of the white bear.
If you’re like most people, you are now probably sitting in front of your computer screen or phone doing exactly what you were just instructed not to do -- thinking of a white bear. In fact, you are probably fixating on the white bear. Certainly, if you weren’t thinking of the white bear before, you are now.
This laser-like focus on the exact idea I instructed you to block out results from what researchers refer to as the ironic process theory, or more simply, the white bear effect. In a seminal research study, participants were asked to verbalize their stream of consciousness and not think about a white bear. Despite these explicit instructions, not only did participants have difficulty suppressing thoughts of the forbidden white bear, but the white bear surfaced with an unusually high frequency.1 This idea relates to relationships as well. After breaking up with a significant other, you may make a conscious effort to avoid thinking about him/her. However, in doing that, you wind up focusing on your ex, which is exactly what you intended not to do in the first place.