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Suppression of Negative and Neutral Thoughts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 June 2009

Richard J. McNally
Harvard University
Joseph N. Ricciardi
Harvard Medical School


Testing a variant of Wegner's (1989) “thought suppression” paradigm, we had subjects identify a personally-relevant negative thought that had been troubling them recently. Subjects were then randomly assigned either to a negative target thought group or to a neutral target thought (“white bear”) group, and randomly assigned either to an initial suppression condition (followed by a free expression period) or an initial free expression condition (followed by a suppression period). The results revealed that subjects in the neutral thought group experienced a decline in thoughts about white bears throughout the course of the experiment, whereas subjects asked first to suppress a personally relevant negative thought experienced nearly a three-fold increase in its frequency of occurrence when later given permission to express it. These findings suggest that negatively valent thoughts may respond differently than neutral thoughts following attempts to suppress them.

Research Article
Copyright © British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies 1996

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