Don’t Think About a White Bear: Perverse Imps, Divided Minds, and Bad Sermonsby David Zahl on Jun 7, 2012 • 1:00 pm
I think we can safely say that The Raven has come and gone without sullying our beloved Edgar Allen Poe’s name too badly (21% on Rotten Tomatoes is not exactly high praise…). We’ll nevertheless do our part in the rehabilitation of his reputation with a passage about “mental intrusion” from Jonathan Haidt’s social psychology tour-de-force, The Happiness Hypothesis. The first chapter, which opens with a quote from Galatians(!), deals with the divided self and contains a beautiful riff on the counter-productivity of exhortation when it comes to mental processes–he could have just as easily invoked Romans 4:15. You might say that Haidt inadvertently zeroes in on the distinction between “cheap Law” (which concerns itself with behavior) and, um, “regularly-priced Law” (which includes motivation and thought in its scope as well). And unlike most of his colleagues, Haidt is bold enough, in the final paragraph, to suggest that the urges we suppress are not morally neutral. The pulpit implications are pretty significant, and as always, it’s gratifying to see social scientists using hard data to arrive at similar conclusions to those who’ve only had religious assertions to go on:
Edgar Allen Poe understood the divided mind. In “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe’s protagonist carries out the perfect murder, inherits the dead man’s estate, and lives for years in healthy enjoyment of his ill-gotten gains. Whenever thoughts of the murder appear on the fringes of his consciousness, he murmurs to himself, “I am safe.” All is well until the day he remodels his mantra to “I am safe–yes–if I be not fool enough to make an open confession.” With that thought, he comes undone. He tries to suppress the thought of confessing, but the harder he tries, the more insistent the thought becomes. He panics, he starts running, people start chasing him, he blacks out, and, when he returns to his senses, he is told that he has made a full confession.
I love this story, for its title above all else. Whenever I am on a cliff, a rooftop, or a high balcony, the imp of the perverse whispers in my ear, “Jump.” It’s not a command, it’s just a word that pops into my consciousness. When I’m at a dinner party sitting next to someone I respect, the imp works hard to suggest the most inappropriate things I could possible say. Who or what is that imp? Dan Wegner, one of the most perverse and creative social psychologists, has dragged the imp into the lab and made it confess to being an aspect of automatic processing.
In Wegner’s studies, participants are asked to try hard not to think about something, such as a white bear, or food, or a stereotype. This is hard to do. More important, the moment one stops trying to suppress a thought, the thought comes flooding in and becomes even harder to banish. In other words, Wegner creates minor obsessions in his lab by instructing people not to obsess. Wegner explains this effect as an “ironic process” of mental control. When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved. When that goal is an action in the world (such as arriving at the airport on time), this feedback system works well. But when the goal is mental, it backfires. Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhuastible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations…
Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shook us, the ones we try to suppress or deny. The reason we suppress them is not that we know, deep down, that they’re true (although some may be), but that they are scary or shameful. Yet once we have tried and failed to suppress them, they can become the sorts of obsessive thoughts that make us believe in Freudian notions of a dark and evil unconscious mind.
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