Butting out bad impulses

Attempting to inhibit perverse ideas or words backfires

Just as smokers or heavy drinkers might find their efforts to ignore cravings only make them stronger, the desire to butt out a perverse or ironic impulse—like mocking someone’s stammer, or blurting out a racial slur—might only make it stronger, the New York Times reports. According to some studies, the adult brain spends as much energy on inhibition as on action; yet when people focus on avoiding certain errors, they seem to pop up instead. To avoid calling someone a dirty word, for example, the brain has to imagine it; and so, just imagining the insult increases the odds it will be said. “We know that what’s accessible in our minds can exert an influence on judgment and behavior simply because it’s there, it’s floating on the surface of consciousness,” Jamie Arndt, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, told the newspaper. In a new paper, published in the journal Science, psychologists have subjects try to ignore a certain thought (for example, of a white bear). Instead of vanishing from the mind, the thought returns at least once a minute. What’s more, people trying not to think of a specific word instead say it over and over again during word association tests. Other studies have shown that golfers told to avoid certain mistakes, like overshooting, do it more often while under pressure; soccer players asked to perform a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot on the night (the lower right corner, for example) look at that corner more than anywhere else.

The New York Times