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Can you literally throw away unwanted thoughts?

Nov. 26, 2012
Courtesy of Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

If you want to get rid of un­wanted, neg­a­tive thoughts, you might try just rip­ping them up and toss­ing them in the trash, ac­cord­ing to a new psy­cho­log­i­cal stu­dy.

Sci­en­tists found that when peo­ple wrote down their thoughts on a piece of pa­per and threw that away, they men­tally dis­carded the thoughts too. Not on­ly, but this trick worked even when in­stead of a pa­per note, it was a com­put­er file, and in­stead of a real trash can, it was the com­put­er’s “re­cy­cle bin.”

Peo­ple were al­so found to be more likely to use a thought in form­ing a judg­ment if they first wrote it down and tucked the pa­per in a pock­et.

The re­sults are pub­lished on­line in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

“How­ever you tag your thoughts — as trash or as wor­thy of pro­tec­tion — seems to make a dif­fer­ence in how you use those thoughts,” said study co-author Rich­ard Pet­ty of Ohio State Uni­vers­ity. “Merely im­ag­in­ing en­gag­ing in these ac­tions has no ef­fec­t,” he added. “The more con­vinced the per­son is that the thoughts are really gone, the bet­ter.”

Some types of psy­cho­log­i­cal ther­a­py use ver­sions of the throw-a­way ap­proach to try to help pa­tients dis­card neg­a­tive thoughts. Pet­ty said this is the first study he knows of that val­i­dates that meth­od. “At some lev­el, it can sound sil­ly. But we found that it really works.”

The find­ings sug­gest peo­ple can treat their thoughts as ma­te­ri­al ob­jects, Pet­ty said. That’s ev­i­dent in the lan­guage we use. “We talk about our thoughts as if we can vis­u­al­ize them. We hold our thoughts. We take stances on is­sues, we lean this way or that way. This all makes our thoughts more real to us.”

Pet­ty con­ducted three ex­pe­ri­ments with col­leagues from the Uni­ver­si­dad Autónoma de Ma­drid in Spain.

In the first, 83 Span­ish high school stu­dents par­ti­ci­pated in a study that, they were told, was about body im­age. Each stu­dent was told to write down ei­ther pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive thoughts about his or her body, then look back at what they wrote. Re­search­ers told half of the young­sters to con­tem­plate their thoughts and then throw them in the trash can, “be­cause their thoughts did not have to re­main with them.” The oth­er half were told to con­tem­plate their thoughts and check them for gram­mar and spell­ing.

The par­ti­ci­pants then rat­ed their at­ti­tudes about their own bod­ies.

Re­sults in­di­cat­ed that for those who kept their thoughts and checked them for mis­takes, youths who wrote pos­i­tive thoughts had more pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward their bod­ies a few min­utes lat­er than did those who wrote neg­a­tive thoughts. But those who threw their thoughts away showed no dif­fer­ence in how they rat­ed their bod­ies, re­gard­less of wheth­er they wrote pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive thoughts.

“When they threw their thoughts away, they did­n’t con­sid­er them an­ymore, wheth­er they were pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive,” Pet­ty said.

In a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, 284 stu­dents par­ti­ci­pated in a si­m­i­lar ac­ti­vity, ex­cept this time they were asked to write neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive thoughts about some­thing most peo­ple be­lieve is good: the Med­i­ter­ra­nean di­et (the di­et em­pha­sizes high con­sump­tion of fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes and un­re­fined cereals, with ol­ive oil as the bas­ic fat).

In this case, some threw the thoughts away, some left them on their desk, and some were told to put the pa­per in their pock­et, wal­let or purse and keep it with them. All par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to rate their at­ti­tudes to­ward the di­et and in­ten­tions to use it.

As in the first ex­pe­ri­ment, those who kept the list of thoughts at their desk were found to be more in­flu­enced by them when eval­u­at­ing the di­et than were those who threw them away. But those who pro­tected their thoughts by put­ting them in a pock­et or purse were even more in­flu­enced than those who kept the thoughts on their desk.

“This sug­gests you can mag­ni­fy your thoughts, and make them more im­por­tant to you, by keep­ing them with you in your wal­let or purse,” Pet­ty said.

But how im­por­tant is the phys­i­cal ac­tion? The re­search­ers con­ducted a third ex­pe­ri­ment us­ing com­put­ers. In this case, 78 Span­ish col­lege stu­dents wrote their thoughts in a com­put­er word-processing doc­u­ment. Some lat­er used a mouse to dra­g the file in­to the com­put­er re­cy­cle bin, while oth­ers moved the file to a stor­age disk. As in the pre­vi­ous stud­ies, par­ti­ci­pants were found to use the neg­a­tive thoughts less if they elec­tron­ically “trashed” them.

In one oth­er con­di­tion, some par­ti­ci­pants were told to simply im­ag­ine dra­gging their neg­a­tive thoughts to the re­cy­cle bin or sav­ing them to a disk. But that had no ef­fect on their lat­er judg­ments. “Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a gar­bage can or put them in the re­cy­cle bin on the com­put­er, they are not really gone — you can re­gen­er­ate them,” Pet­ty said. “But the rep­re­senta­t­ions of those thoughts are gone, at least tem­po­rar­ily, and it seems to make it eas­i­er to not think about them.”

Pet­ty said the re­search­ers plan to see if this tech­nique could work to help peo­ple haunt­ed by re­cur­rent, neg­a­tive thoughts, such as mem­o­ries of the death of a loved one. “We want to find out if there is a way to keep those thoughts from com­ing back, at least for long­er pe­ri­ods of time.”


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If you want to get rid of unwanted, negative thoughts, you might try just ripping them up and tossing them in the trash, according to a new psychological study. Scientists found that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw that away, they managed to mentally discard the thoughts too. Not only, but this trick worked even when instead of a paper note, it was a computer file, and instead of a real trash can, it was the computer’s “recycle bin.” People were also found to be more likely to use a thought in forming a judgment if they first wrote it down and tucked the paper in a pocket. The results are published online in the research journal Psychological Science. “However you tag your thoughts — as trash or as worthy of protection — seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” said study co-author Richard Petty of Ohio State University. “Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect,” he added. “The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better.” Some types of psychological therapy use versions of the throw-away approach to try to help patients discard negative thoughts. Petty said this is the first study he knows of that validates that method. “At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works.” The findings suggest people can treat their thoughts as material objects, Petty said. That’s evident in the language we use. “We talk about our thoughts as if we can visualize them. We hold our thoughts. We take stances on issues, we lean this way or that way. This all makes our thoughts more real to us.” Petty conducted three experiments with colleagues from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. In the first, 83 Spanish high school students participated in a study they were told was about body image. Each student was told to write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her body during a three-minute period. All students were asked to look back at the thoughts they wrote. Researchers told half of the youngsters to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them in the trash can located in the room, “because their thoughts did not have to remain with them.” The other half were told to contemplate their thoughts and check for any grammar or spelling mistakes. The participants then rated their attitudes about their own bodies on three, nine-point scales. Results indicated that for those who kept their thoughts and checked them for mistakes, it mattered whether they generated positive or negative thoughts about their bodies. As would be expected, the scientists said, participants who wrote positive thoughts had more positive attitudes toward their bodies a few minutes later than did those who wrote negative thoughts. But those who threw their thoughts away showed no difference in how they rated their bodies, regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative thoughts. “When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty said. In a second experiment, 284 students participated in a similar activity, except this time they were asked to write negative or positive thoughts about something most people believe is good: the Mediterranean diet (the diet emphasizes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and unrefined cereals, with olive oil as the basic fat). In this case, some threw the thoughts away, some left them on their desk, and some were told to put the paper in their pocket, wallet or purse and keep it with them. All participants were then asked to rate their attitudes toward the diet and intentions to use the diet for themselves. As in the first experiment, those who kept the list of thoughts at their desk were more influenced by them when evaluating the diet than were those who threw them away. However, those who protected their thoughts by putting them in a pocket or purse were even more influenced than those who kept the thoughts on their desk. “This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse,” Petty said. But how important is the physical action? The researchers conducted a third experiment using computers. In this case, 78 Spanish college students wrote their thoughts in a computer word-processing document. Some later used a mouse to drag the file into the computer recycle bin, while others moved the file to a storage disk. Just as in the previous studies, participants made less use of negative thoughts that they had trashed — by dragging them to the recycle bin — than did those who saved the thoughts by transferring them to a disk. In one other condition, some participants were told to simply imagine dragging their negative thoughts to the recycle bin or saving them to a disk. But that had no effect on their later judgments. “Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone — you can regenerate them,” Petty said. “But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.” Petty said the researchers plan to see if this technique could work to help people haunted by recurrent, negative thoughts, such as memories of the death of a loved one. “We want to find out if there is a way to keep those thoughts from coming back, at least for longer periods of time.”