Willpower: Why Thought Suppression Doesn’t Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does thought suppression always fail? What methods can you use to strengthen willpower without trying to force yourself not to think about something?

When you try to suppress your thoughts and desires, they come back stronger. This is why so many diets fail and one of the reasons it’s so hard to get out of an anxiety or depression spiral. Luckily, there are some hacks you can use to stop thinking about the elephant in the room.

Continue below to learn more about thought suppression and willpower techniques.

Why Denial Backfires 

Willpower does a good job of controlling our outer actions, but it’s useless when applied to our interior world of thoughts and feelings. Have you ever deliberately tried not to think about elephants? As soon as you try to use thought suppression, all you can think about is elephants. 

This is a result of what psychologists call “ironic rebound.” It’s the reason why dieters who completely cut out carbohydrates start to think of nothing but loaves of bread. 

As soon as we try to suppress thoughts from our minds, ironic rebound kicks in. When depressed people try to block out sad thoughts, they get more depressed. When parents try to not to worry about their children’s behavior, they wind up worrying more. The harder you try to suppress a thought, the more likely it will come back even stronger. 

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how this works, but the general idea is that one part of the brain decides it must stay alert at all times for the “forbidden” thing—carbohydrates, elephants, sad thoughts, worries. As a result, it’s constantly focused on their possible existence, and that makes them show up everywhere. 

Thought Suppression Leads to Willpower Failure

The research: James Erskine, a psychologist at St. George’s University of London, believes that attempts to suppress our thoughts actually lead us to act upon our thoughts. He conducted an experiment in which he brought women into his lab to taste-test chocolate candies. Some of the women were instructed to express their thoughts about chocolate before tasting the candies. Others were told to suppress their thoughts about chocolate. A control group received no instructions. 

Each woman was then given a bowl of 20 chocolate candies and told to eat as many as they wanted to. Sure enough, those who had suppressed thoughts of chocolate ate almost twice as many as the others. 

The conclusion? Dieters who use thought suppression wind up having the least control over their eating habits—and that’s one big reason why diets don’t work. Studies have shown that dieting more often leads to weight gain instead of weight loss. When we “outlaw” or restrict certain foods, our cravings for them automatically increase. 

A program at Laval University in Quebec is studying what happens when dieters are told what they should eat, not what they shouldn’t eat. Essentially, they’re taking an “I won’t” willpower challenge and converting it into an “I will” challenge. This spin—focusing on positive steps that study participants can take as opposed to dictating a list of forbidden foods, seems to be working. At a 16-month follow-up check-in, two-thirds of the participants had lost weight and maintained that weight loss, and they reported a greater sense of control over cravings. 

Willpower Hack: Reframe Your “I Won’t” to “I Will” 

Those Canadian dieters started focusing on positive action (eating foods that would make them healthier and slimmer) instead of prohibition (giving up foods they adored). It’s possible to translate this idea into almost any kind of willpower challenge. 

Most “bad” habits or behaviors are an attempt to satisfy some kind of need—it might be a need to have fun, reduce stress, or gain approval. Think about one of your “bad” behaviors and the need it satisfies. Instead of banning that behavior, see if you can come up with an alternate behavior that will satisfy the same need. Ask yourself: 

  • Is there a better habit that I could replace my bad habit with? (For instance, you might decide to drink green tea instead of coffee, or go for a walk at lunchtime instead of sitting at your desk.) 
  • Can I redefine my “I won’t” challenge as an “I will” challenge? (For instance, if you keep telling yourself you won’t be late again, perhaps you should start telling yourself you will always arrive five minutes early.) 

Willpower Hack: Let Your Thoughts and Cravings Come and Go

If you really want to stop thinking about elephants, science says your best bet is to grant yourself permission to think about elephants. Let your thoughts come and go freely, and they’ll stop hijacking your mind. If the brain is allowed to express a thought or feeling that it was previously trying to suppress, it stops obsessing over it. 

You don’t have to act on your thoughts; you just have to let them wander through your mind. Instead of thinking of certain foods, substances, or activities as “forbidden,” try accepting your cravings without acting on them, a process known as “surfing the urge.” 

Try this four-step plan the next time you’re craving chocolate, video games, or more time scrolling through Facebook: 

  1. Notice your cravings or thoughts about whatever is tempting you. 
  2. Graciously accept that craving or thought without trying to distract yourself from it or argue yourself out of it. “Surf the urge,” or pay attention to it without trying to change it or discount it. 
  3. Realize that cravings and thoughts come and go through your mind. You can’t control them, but you can control whether or not you act on them. 
  4. Hold on tight to your bigger goal. Remember what you’ve committed to do and why it matters to you. 
Willpower: Why Thought Suppression Doesn’t Work

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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