Doing the wrong thing

Dont think about the white bear

Don't think about the white bear

Don’t think about a white bear.

Try really hard not to let any thoughts of a white bear enter your head.

Keep trying…

So often when we are trying to avoid a particular thought or action, we end up thinking, saying or doing precisely what we were trying to steer clear of.

If you have ever been given feedback on your presentation skills which has highlighted a particular mannerism or repeated phrase, you will know how hard it is to stop it.

A review article in Science by Daniel Wegner examines the reasons for this annoying tendency. In How to think, say or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion, Wegner talks about two processes in the brain.

The first process involves a conscious effort to suppress the unwanted behaviour by diverting attention into other activities. So, in order to stop yourself thinking about a white bear, you make yourself think about something else instead.

The second process is a non-conscious process that actively looks for examples of the undesirable behaviour and flags them up so that the conscious process can deal with them. Every time there is a possible stray thought that might lead you to think about a white bear, this process alerts you so that you can distract yourself.

Unfortunately, the conscious process can get overloaded if there are other things happening to distract it, such as remembering what you were going to say in a presentation or dealing with difficult interview questions. In such demanding situations, the non-conscious process continues its job of looking out for possible dangerous thoughts and behaviours. However, when it passes the message on, your distracted conscious brain sometimes mistakes this as a signal to perform the action rather than suppress it. The result is that turning on the non-conscious monitoring process can actually increase the possiblity that you do exactly the thing you don’t want to do.

  • Could giving feedback in interview or presentation skills coaching do more harm than good?
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