فصل 09

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فصل 09

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NINE

Don’t Read This Chapter: The Limits of “I Won’t” Power

The year was 1985, and the scene of the crime was a psychology laboratory at Trinity University, a small liberal arts school in San Antonio, Texas. Seventeen undergraduates were consumed with a thought they couldn’t control. They knew it was wrong—they knew they shouldn’t be thinking about it. But it was just so damn captivating. Every time they tried to think of something else, the thought bullied its way back into their consciousness. They just couldn’t stop thinking about white bears.

White bears were hardly a regular concern of these college students, whose minds were more typically preoccupied by s@x, exams, and the disappointment of New Coke. But white bears were irresistible to them at that moment—and all because they had been given the instruction “For the next five minutes, please try not to think about white bears.”

These students were the first participants in a series of studies by Daniel Wegner, who is now a psychology professor at Harvard University. Early in his career, Wegner had come across a story about Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. A young Tolstoy had been told by his older brother to sit in a corner until he could stop thinking about a white bear. His brother returned much later to discover Tolstoy still in the corner, paralyzed by his inability to stop thinking about a white bear. Wegner soon found that he couldn’t get this story, and the question it raised, out of his mind: Why can’t we control our thoughts?

Wegner set up a study nearly identical to Tolstoy’s childhood test of mental control, asking participants to think about anything they wanted, except for a white bear. The following partial transcript from one woman thinking aloud reveals how difficult this was for most people:

I’m trying to think of a million things to make me think about everything but a white bear and I keep thinking of it over and over and over. So . . . ummm, hey, look at this brown wall. It’s like, every time I try and not think about a white bear, I’m still thinking about one.

This went on, with little variation, for fifteen minutes.

The inability to stop thinking about white bears might not strike you as the worst willpower failure in the world. But as we’ll see, the problem with prohibition extends to any thought we try to ban. The latest research on anxiety, depression, dieting, and addiction all confirm: “I won’t” power fails miserably when it’s applied to the inner world of thoughts and feelings. As we enter that inner world, we will find we need a new definition of self-control—one that makes room for letting go of control.

ISN’T IT IRONIC

Wegner repeated his white bear thought experiment with other students, and when they too became obsessed with bears, he prohibited other thoughts. Each time, the mere act of trying not to think about something triggered a paradoxical effect: People thought about it more than when they weren’t trying to control their thoughts, and even more than when they were intentionally trying to think about it. The effect was strongest when people were already stressed out, tired, or distracted. Wegner dubbed this effect ironic rebound. You push a thought away, and—BAM!—it boomerangs back. 30 Ironic rebound explains many modern frustrations: the insomniac who finds herself more wide-awake the harder she tries to fall asleep; the dieter who banishes carbohydrates, only to find himself dreaming about Wonder bread and whoopie pies; the worrier who tries to block out her anxiety but gets drawn again and again into disaster fantasies. Wegner has even shown that suppressing thoughts about a crush while you are awake increases the likelihood of dreaming about them—more than intentionally fantasizing about the dreamboat does. This, no doubt, contributes to the Romeo and Juliet effect—the well-known psychological tendency to fall deeper in desire whenever a romance is forbidden.

Wegner has found evidence for ironic effects of attempting to suppress just about any instinct you can imagine. The job candidate who wants so badly to make a good impression is most likely to blurt out the very thing that makes the interviewer cringe. The speaker trying to be politically correct paradoxically activates every offensive stereotype in his mind. The person who most wants to keep a secret finds herself compelled to spill the beans. The waiter who tries the hardest to not tip his tray is most likely to end up with marinara sauce on his shirt. Wegner even (somewhat charitably) credits ironic effects for the scientific finding that the most homophobic men get the largest erections while watching gay @@@.

WHY THOUGHT SUPPRESSION DOESN’T WORK

Why does trying to eliminate a thought or emotion trigger a rebound? Wegner’s hunch is that it has something to do with how the brain handles the command not to think about something. It splits the task into two parts, achieved by two different systems of the brain. One part of your mind will take on the job of directing your attention toward anything other than the forbidden thought. It’s like the woman in Wegner’s first study trying not to think of the white bear—“I’m trying to think of a million things to make me think about everything but a white bear . . . hey, look at this brown wall.” Wegner calls this process the operator. The operator relies on the brain’s system of self-control and—like all forms of effortful self-control—requires a good deal of mental resources and energy. Another part of your mind takes on the job of looking for any evidence that you are thinking, feeling, or doing whatever you don’t want to think, feel, or do. It’s like the young woman observing, “I keep thinking of it over and over and over . . . every time I try and not think about a white bear, I’m still thinking about one.” Wegner calls this process the monitor. Unlike the operator, the monitor runs automatically and without much mental effort. The monitor is more closely related to the brain’s automatic threat-detection system. This can sound good—automatic self-control!—until you realize how critical the cooperation is between operator and monitor. If, for any reason, the operator runs out of steam, the monitor is going to become a self-control nightmare.

Under ordinary circumstances, the operator and the monitor work in parallel. Let’s say you’re headed to the grocery store, and you’ve decided that you will not be tempted by the snack food aisle. While the operator is trying to focus, plan, and control your behavior (“I’m here at the grocery store to pick up cereal, nothing else. Where’s the cereal aisle?”), the monitor is scanning your mind and your environment for warning signs. (“Danger! Danger! Cookies on aisle three! You love cookies! Is that your stomach growling? Alert! Alert! Beware of the cookies! Cookies cookies cookies!”) If your mental resources are high, the operator can make good use of the monitor’s hysteria. When the monitor points out possible temptations or troubling thoughts, the operator steps in to steer you toward your goals and out of trouble. But if your mental resources are taxed—whether by distractions, fatigue, stress, alcohol, illness, or other mental drains—the operator cannot do its job. The monitor, on the other hand, is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going and going and going.

A tired operator and an energized monitor create a problematic imbalance in the mind. As the monitor searches for forbidden content, it continuously brings to mind what it is searching for. Neuroscientists have shown that the brain is constantly processing the forbidden content just outside of conscious awareness. The result: You become primed to think, feel, or do whatever you are trying to avoid. So as soon as you pass the snack aisle in the grocery store, the monitor will remember the goal not to buy cookies, and fill your mind with Cookies cookies cookies! Without the operator’s full strength to balance the monitor, it’s like a Shakespearean tragedy in your very own brain. By trying to prevent your downfall, the monitor leads you straight to it.

IF I THINK IT, IT MUST BE TRUE

Trying not to think about something guarantees that it is never far from your mind. This leads to a second problem: When you try to push a thought away, and it keeps coming back to your mind, you are more likely to assume that it must be true. Why else would the thought keep resurfacing? We trust that our thoughts are important sources of information. When a thought becomes more frequent and harder to pull yourself away from, you will naturally assume that it is an urgent message that you should pay attention to.

This cognitive bias seems to be hardwired in the human brain. We estimate how likely or true something is by the ease with which we can bring it to mind. This can have unsettling consequences when we try to push a worry or desire out of our minds. For example, because it’s easy to remember news stories about plane crashes (especially if you are a fearful flier handing over your boarding pass), we tend to overestimate the likelihood of being in a crash. The risk is actually about one in fourteen million, but most people believe the risk is higher than of dying from nephritis or septicemia—two of the top ten causes of death in the United States, but not diseases that easily pop into our minds.

Whatever fear or desire you try to push away will become more convincing and compelling. Wegner, the psychologist who discovered ironic rebound, once received a phone call from a distraught student who couldn’t stop thinking about killing herself. A fleeting thought had gotten lodged in her brain, and she had become convinced that she must really, deep down, want to kill herself. Otherwise, why would the idea keep intruding into her thoughts? She called Wegner—perhaps the only psychologist she knew—for help. Now keep in mind, Wegner is a scientific psychologist, not a psychotherapist. He isn’t trained to talk people off ledges or muddle around in the dark corners of other people’s minds. So he talked to the student about what he knew: white bears. He told her about his experiments, and explained that the more you try to push away a thought, the more likely it is to fight its way back into consciousness. This doesn’t mean the thought is true or important. The student was relieved to realize that how she reacted to the thought of suicide had strengthened it—but this did not mean she really wanted to kill herself.

For you, it might be the thought that a loved one has been in a car accident. Or the thought that a pint of Karamel Sutra ice cream is the only thing that will soothe your stress. If you panic and push the thought out of your mind, it is going to come back. And when it does, it will return with more authority. Because you are trying not to think about it, its reappearance seems even more meaningful. As a result, you’re more likely to believe it is true. The worrier becomes more worried, and the ice-cream craver pulls out her spoon.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: INVESTIGATING IRONIC REBOUND

Is there something you try to keep out of your mind? If so, examine the theory of ironic rebound. Does suppression work? Or does trying to push something out of your mind make it come back stronger? (Yes, you are going to give the monitor the job of monitoring the monitor.)

AVOIDING IRONIC REBOUND

How can you find your way out of this confounding dilemma? Wegner suggests an antidote to ironic rebound that is, itself, ironic: Give up. When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.

This solution turns out to be useful for a surprisingly wide range of unwanted inner experiences. The willingness to think what you think and feel what you feel—without necessarily believing that it is true, and without feeling compelled to act on it—is an effective strategy for treating anxiety, depression, food cravings, and addiction. As we consider the evidence for each, we’ll see that giving up control of our inner experiences gives us greater control over our outer actions.

I DON’T WANT TO FEEL THIS WAY

Can trying not to think sad thoughts make people depressed? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed. The more depressed people try to block out distressing thoughts, the more depressed they get. One of Wegner’s first thought-suppression experiments showed this effect even in perfectly healthy subjects. He asked people to either think about the worst things that have happened to them, or to not think about those things. When people are stressed out or distracted, trying not to think sad thoughts makes them even sadder than when they are trying to feel sad. Another experiment found that when people try to push away self-critical thoughts (“I’m such a loser,” “People think I’m stupid”), their self-esteem and mood plummet faster than when people openly contemplate such thoughts. This is true even when people think they have succeeded at pushing the negative thoughts away. Ironic rebound strikes again!

Trying to suppress anxiety also backfires. For example, people who try not to think about a painful medical procedure end up feeling more anxious and have more intrusive thoughts about the pain. People who try to suppress their fear before giving a public speech not only feel more anxious, but also have higher heart rates (and are therefore more likely to blow the big talk). We may try to push thoughts out of our minds, but the body gets the message anyway. And just as trying to suppress sad and self-critical thoughts makes depression worse, studies show that thought suppression increases the symptoms of serious anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

These findings can be hard to wrap our heads around. They go against every instinct we have to protect our minds from disturbing thoughts. What are we supposed to do with harmful thoughts if not get rid of them? But as we’ll see, if we want to save ourselves from mental suffering, we need to make peace with those thoughts, not push them away.

THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME

Philippe Goldin is one of the most outgoing neuroscientists you’ll ever meet. This is not to say that brain geeks aren’t a friendly bunch, but most don’t offer bear hugs to whoever wanders into the lab. Goldin directs the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Stanford University, which is a fancy way of saying that he uses what he knows about the brain to help people who suffer from depression and anxiety—social anxiety in particular. He’s the last guy in the world you’d think would be interested in social anxiety disorder, a crippling form of shyness, but he’s made a career trying to understand and treat the disorder.

The people who enroll in his studies are not just a little bit nervous in social situations. The mere thought of speaking to strangers can provoke a panic attack. You know that nightmare when you realize you are naked, and everyone is pointing and laughing at you? People with social anxiety disorder feel like they are living that nightmare 24/7. They have a constant fear of embarrassing themselves or being judged by others, and they are usually their own worst critics. They often suffer from depression. Most avoid any situation—from parties to crowds to speaking in public—that triggers their anxiety and self-doubt. As a result, their lives get smaller and smaller, and even things that most people take for granted—meetings at work, making a phone call—can become overwhelming.

Goldin studies what happens in anxiety sufferers’ brains when they worry. He has found that people with social anxiety are worse at controlling their thoughts than the average person, and it shows in their brains. When confronted with a worry—say, imagining themselves being criticized—the stress center overreacts. When Goldin asks them to change what they’re thinking, the system of attention control is underactivated. Borrowing from Wegner’s theory of thought control, it’s as if their “operator” is exhausted and cannot point their minds away from the worry. This would explain why people with anxiety disorders are so consumed by their fears—their attempts to push the thoughts away are especially ineffective.

Traditional therapy for social anxiety disorder focuses on challenging thoughts like “There’s something wrong with me” to get rid of the anxiety. This only makes sense if you believe that trying not to think something works. Goldin takes a very different approach. He teaches social anxiety sufferers to observe and accept their thoughts and feelings—even the scary ones. The goal is not to get rid of the anxiety and self-doubt, but to develop a trust that they can handle these difficult thoughts and feelings. If they learn that there is no inner experience that they need to protect themselves from, they can find more freedom in the outer world. When a worry comes up, he instructs the anxiety sufferers to notice what they are thinking, feel the anxiety in their body, and then turn their attention to their breathing. If the anxiety persists, he encourages them to imagine their thoughts and emotions dissolving with the breath. He teaches them that if they don’t fight the anxiety, it will naturally run its course.

Because Goldin is a neuroscientist, he’s especially interested in how this approach might change the brain. Before and after the intervention, he puts the anxiety sufferers in an fMRI machine to watch their brains at work while they worry. These brain-scanning sessions could provoke anxiety and claustrophobia in even the calmest of people. His subjects are forced to lie immobilized on their backs, their heads trapped in the brain scanner. They have to clamp their mouths on dental wax to prevent them from moving their heads or talking. The machine around their heads makes a regular clanging sound that is best compared to a jackhammer. As if that’s not bad enough, they are then asked to reflect on different statements about themselves that appear on a screen in front of their face: “I’m not OK the way I am.” “People think I’m weird.” “Something’s wrong with me.” While the social anxiety sufferers are thinking about these statements, Goldin watches the activity in two regions of the brain: a network associated with reading comprehension, which would reveal how deeply a person was contemplating each statement, and the stress center, which would reveal how much that person was panicking.

When he compared each person’s brain scan from before and after the training, he found an intriguing change. After the intervention, there was much more activity in the brain network associated with visual information processing. The social anxiety sufferers were paying more attention to the self-critical statements than they had before the training. Now, to most people, this would sound like a complete failure.

Except for one thing: There was also a major decrease in the stress center’s activity. Even as the anxiety sufferers gave the negative thoughts their full attention, they were less upset by them. This change in the brain came with big benefits in everyday life. After the intervention, the anxiety sufferers felt less anxious overall, and they were spending less time criticizing themselves and worrying. When they stopped fighting their thoughts and emotions, they found more freedom from them.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL, BUT DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK

When an upsetting thought comes to mind, try the technique that Goldin teaches his subjects. Instead of instantly trying to distract yourself from it, let yourself notice the thought. Oftentimes, our most disturbing thoughts are familiar—the same worry, the same self-criticism, the same memory. “What if something goes wrong?” “I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid.” “If only that hadn’t happened. What could I have done differently?” These thoughts pop up like a song that gets stuck in our heads, seemingly out of nowhere, but then is impossible to get rid of. Let yourself notice whether the upsetting thought is an old, familiar tune—that’s your first clue that it is not critically important information you need to believe. Then shift your attention to what you are feeling in your body. Notice if there is any tension present, or changes to your heart rate or breathing. Notice if you feel it in your gut, your chest, your throat, or anywhere else in your body. Once you’ve observed the thought and feelings, shift your attention to your breathing. Notice how it feels to breathe in and breathe out. Sometimes the upsetting thought and feelings naturally dissipate when you do this. Other times, they will keep interrupting your attention to your breath. If this happens, imagine the thought and feelings like clouds passing through your mind and body. Keep breathing, and imagine the clouds dissolving or floating by. Imagine your breath as a wind that dissolves and moves the clouds effortlessly. You don’t need to make the thought go away; just stay with the feeling of your breath.

Notice that this technique is not the same thing as believing or ruminating over a thought. The opposite of thought suppression is accepting the presence of the thought—not believing it. You’re accepting that thoughts come and go, and that you can’t always control what thoughts come to mind. You don’t have to automatically accept the content of the thought. In other words, you might say to yourself, “Oh well, there’s that thought again—worries happen. That’s just the way the mind works, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” You’re not saying to yourself, “Oh well, I guess it’s true. I am a terrible person and terrible things are going to happen to me, and I guess I need to accept it.” This same practice can be used for any distracting thought or upsetting emotion, including anger, jealousy, anxiety, or shame.

After trying this technique a few times, compare it with the results you get from trying to push away upsetting thoughts and emotions. Which is more effective at giving you peace of mind?

A DAUGHTER MAKES PEACE WITH HER ANGER

Valerie was exhausted from the events of the past year. Her mother had been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease several years earlier, but things had gotten worse. Her mother’s memory loss had accelerated, and she was no longer capable of being home by herself while Valerie worked. Valerie and her family had made the decision to have her mother moved into a long-term care facility. Although the medical team was always available, Valerie still felt responsible for visiting her mother every day and overseeing her medical care. Her other siblings didn’t live as close to the facility, and her father had passed, so she was left in charge.

The whole situation made Valerie angry. Angry that she was losing her mother to the disease, and angry that she had to deal with this on her own. Even the visits were frustrating, as her mom’s personality and memory were becoming unpredictable. On top of all that, she felt guilty for feeling angry. To deal with her exhaustion, anger, and guilt, she had been taking comfort in a daily stop at the grocery store on the way home from the long-term care facility. She loaded up on cupcakes, doughnuts, or whatever looked good in the bakery case, and ate them in her car in the parking lot. She had been telling herself it was the least she deserved for what she was going through, but really she was trying to drown her feelings before going home.

Valerie was afraid that if she didn’t try to push away her feelings at the end of each visit, she would be completely overcome by them. If she let herself see the emotions, she might not be able to pull herself out of them. And yet they already were overwhelming her. So Valerie started to practice the breathing and cloud imagery after each visit with her mother, on a bench outside the facility. She let herself feel the heaviness and thickness of guilt, and the tightness of anger. Then she imagined her breath as a wind that could blow through these dark clouds. She imagined the feelings becoming less dense, less suffocating. As the guilt and anger dissolved, grief often came up—a feeling that did not go away with breathing. But Valerie found that when she allowed herself to feel the grief, she did not actually want to push it away. There was room for it.

In time, the grocery-store ritual lost its appeal and was replaced with a moment-by-moment willingness to feel whatever came up throughout the day. Valerie was even able to bring that same willingness to her visits with her mother, letting herself feel her frustration instead of telling herself she wasn’t allowed to be angry at her mother. It didn’t change the situation, but it took away some of the stress. When she wasn’t trying to get rid of her feelings, she was better able to take care of both her mother and herself.

Trying to avoid unwanted feelings often leads to self-destructive behavior, whether it’s a procrastinator trying to avoid anxiety, or a drinker trying to avoid feeling alone. For your willpower challenge, see if there is a feeling you are trying not to feel. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to feel it, using the breath and cloud imagery?

DON’T EAT THE APPLE

James Erskine, a psychologist at St. George’s University of London, is fascinated by Wegner’s research on white bears. But he believes that thought suppression doesn’t just make it more likely that we’ll think something—it makes us compelled to do the very thing we’re trying not to think of. He’s long marveled at people’s tendency to do the exact opposite of what they want to do (himself included, though this intrepid writer was unable to pry any details out of Erskine). His favorite author is Dostoyevsky, whose characters routinely vow not to do something, only to find themselves moments later doing that very thing. Of course, Dostoyevsky’s characters are more likely to be conflicted over the urge to kill than the desire for dessert. Nevertheless, Erskine suspects that the process of ironic rebound is behind all of our self-sabotaging behavior, from breaking a diet to smoking, drinking, gambling, and having s@x (presumably, with someone you’re not supposed to be swapping DNA with).

Erskine first demonstrated how dangerous thought suppression is to self-control with one of the world’s most craved substances: chocolate. (To appreciate the near universality of chocolate cravings, consider this: For a study designed to examine the differences between people who crave chocolate and people who don’t, it took researchers a year just to find eleven men who didn’t like chocolate.) Erskine invited women into his laboratory for a taste test of two similar chocolate candies.31 Before the chocolate was brought in, he asked the women to think out loud for five minutes. He told some women to express any thoughts of chocolate, and others to suppress any thoughts of chocolate. (A third of the women were given no special thought-control instructions, for comparison.) At first, thought suppression appeared to work. Women who tried not to think about chocolate reported fewer thoughts about chocolate—in one study, they had an average of only nine thoughts, compared with fifty-two by the women who were told to express any thoughts about chocolate. But anyone rooting for suppression should not get their hopes up. The real measure of success is the taste test.

The experimenter then presented each woman with two bowls con-taining twenty individually wrapped chocolates. They were left alone in the room with a survey about the chocolates, and invited to eat as many chocolates as necessary to answer the questions. In each study, the results were the same: Women ate almost twice as many chocolates if they tried not to think about chocolate before the taste test. Dieters showed the biggest rebound of all, revealing that the people most likely to use thought suppression as a defense strategy against temptation are the most vulnerable to its unwanted effects. A 2010 survey found that dieters are much more likely than nondieters to try to suppress thoughts about food. And—as Wegner’s white bears would predict—dieters who suppress thoughts about food have the least control around food. They experience more intense food cravings and are more likely to binge-eat than those who do not try to control their thoughts.

THE PROBLEM WITH DIETING

Although dieting is a long-standing American pastime, as a method of losing weight, it stinks. A 2007 review of all research on food-restriction or calorie-restriction diets declared that there is little to no evidence for weight loss or health benefits of dieting, and growing evidence that dieting does harm. The vast majority of dieters not only regain the weight they lose while dieting, but gain more. In fact, dieting is a better way to gain weight than to lose it. People who go on diets gain more weight over time than people who start at the same weight but never diet. Several long-term studies have found that yo-yo dieting raises blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels, suppresses the immune system, and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and all-cause mortality. (And, if you recall, dieting also increases your chances of cheating on your spouse—though you won’t see any of these side effects listed on your Jenny Craig contract.) Many researchers—like Erskine—have come to the conclusion that what makes dieting so ineffective is the very thing people expect to be most effective: outlawing fattening foods. From the very first forbidden fruit, prohibition has led to problems, and science is now confirming that restricting a food automatically increases your cravings for it. For example, women asked to not eat chocolate for one week experience a surge in chocolate cravings and eat twice as much chocolate ice cream, cookies, and cake during a taste test as women who had not been depriving themselves. This doesn’t happen because the brain and body suddenly realize they cannot function without the exact amino acids and micronutrients in chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream. (If cravings really worked this way, millions of Americans would have the overwhelming desire for fresh fruits and vegetables.) No, the rebound is more psychological than physiological. The more you try to avoid the food, the more your mind will be preoccupied by it.

Erskine points out that many dieters are fooled into thinking thought suppression works because they often feel successful—at least initially—at getting rid of their food thoughts. It’s not just dieters who can convince themselves that suppression works; we’re all susceptible to this illusion. Because it is possible to temporarily push away a thought, we assume that the strategy is itself fundamentally sound. Our eventual failure to control our thoughts and behavior is interpreted as evidence that we didn’t try hard enough to suppress—not that suppression doesn’t work. This leads us to try harder, setting ourselves up for an even stronger rebound.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHAT’S ON YOUR MOST-WANTED LIST?

The science suggests that when we outlaw a food, we increase desire. Is this true in your experience? Have you ever tried to lose weight by cutting out a food group or favorite snack? If so, how long did that last—and how did it end? Is there anything on your do-not-eat list right now? If so, how has outlawing it influenced your cravings for it? If you don’t diet, is there anything you’re prohibiting? Has it killed your desire, or fed it?

THE POWER OF ACCEPTANCE

What are we to do with our thoughts and cravings if not push them away? Maybe we should embrace them. That’s the conclusion of a study that gave one hundred students transparent boxes of Hershey’s Kisses to keep with them at all times for forty-eight hours. Their challenge: Don’t eat a single Kiss, or any other chocolate. (To be sure there were no cheaters, the experimenters subtly marked each Kiss so they would know if anyone tried to replace eaten Kisses.) The experimenters didn’t send the students off defenseless; they gave them advice on how to handle their temptation. Some students were told to distract themselves whenever they wanted to eat a Kiss. They were also told to argue with thoughts of eating. For example, if they had the thought, Those chocolates look so good. I’ll eat just one! they should try to replace it with the thought, You are not allowed to eat the chocolates, and you don’t need one. In other words, these students were told to do exactly what most of us do when we want to control our appetites.

Other students got a lesson in the white-bear phenomenon. Experimenters explained ironic rebound and encouraged the students not to push away thoughts about eating chocolate. Instead, they should notice when they were craving chocolate, accept whatever thoughts or feelings they had about the chocolate, but also remember that they didn’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings. While not controlling their thoughts, they still had to control their behavior.

Over the forty-eight-hour test of their willpower, the students who gave up thought control had the fewest cravings for chocolate. Interestingly, the students who were helped the most by the acceptance strategy were those who ordinarily had the least self-control around food. When students who typically struggled the most with food cravings tried to distract or argue with themselves, it was a disaster. But when they let go of thought suppression, they were less tempted by the Kisses and less stressed out about having to carry around chocolate they couldn’t eat. Most incredibly, not a single student using the acceptance strategy ate a Kiss, despite staring at the promise of reward for two days straight.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: ACCEPT THOSE CRAVINGS—JUST DON’T ACT ON THEM

In the Hershey’s Kisses study, students who learned about the white-bear rebound effect were given the following four-step advice for handling their cravings. This week, try applying this advice to your own most challenging cravings, be they chocolate, cappuccinos, or checking e-mail.

Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving. Accept the thought or feeling without trying to immediately distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white-bear rebound effect. Step back by realizing that thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but you can choose whether to act on them. Remember your goal. Remind yourself of whatever your commitment is, as the students reminded themselves of their agreement not to eat the Hershey’s Kisses.

A CHOCOHOLIC TAKES INSPIRATION FROM HERSHEY’S KISSES

Caroline was grateful to have a strategy against constant exposure to chocolate. In her office, it was common custom to have a candy bowl on your desk. Caroline didn’t keep one on her desk, but she couldn’t visit anyone else without facing temptation. It was a constant source of stress—would she or wouldn’t she? If she took one piece, would she find some pretense to sneak back for another? It had gotten to the point where she would e-mail or call a coworker who was less than fifty feet away, just to avoid a fully stocked bowl of temptation. The week after we discussed the Hershey’s Kiss study, I got an excited e-mail from Caroline. She told me that just thinking about the study had given her newfound self-control. She could look right at the chocolates on a coworker’s desk, even lean down and inhale the scent, and not give in. Her coworkers would pop another piece of candy and sigh about how little willpower they had. In contrast, Caroline couldn’t believe how much willpower she had. She didn’t know if it was accepting her cravings, or just thinking about those students carrying around their boxes of Hershey’s Kisses, that was boosting her willpower—but either way, she was thrilled.

Students often tell me that bringing a specific study to mind—even imagining the participants in the study—gives them greater self-control. If a study stands out to you, bring it to mind in tempting situations.

THE NO-DIETING DIET

Is it even possible to lose weight or improve your health if you don’t outlaw fattening foods? A new approach suggests that it is—and I’m not talking about some miracle pill that claims to help you burn fat and lift weights in your sleep. Researchers at Laval University in Quebec have been studying a unique intervention that focuses on what participants should eat. The program doesn’t hand out a list of forbidden foods, and it doesn’t focus on cutting calories. Instead, it emphasizes how foods can create health and provide pleasure. It also asks participants to think about what they can do to improve their health—like exercise—instead of thinking in terms of what they shouldn’t do or eat.

In essence, the program turns an “I won’t” power challenge into an “I will” power challenge. Instead of waging war against their appetites, they make it their mission to pursue health.

Studies of this approach show that turning “I won’t” into “I will” works. Two-thirds of the participants who have been followed lost weight and maintained that loss at a sixteen-month follow-up. (Compare that with the results of your most recent diet; I believe it takes the average dieter sixteen days to be back where he or she started.) They also report fewer food cravings after completing the program, and are less likely to lose control around food in situations—like stress and celebration—that typically trigger overeating. Importantly, the women who developed the most flexible attitudes toward food lost the most weight. Ending prohibition gave them more, not less, control over what they ate.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: TURN YOUR “I WON’T” INTO “I WILL”

Even nondieters can take a lesson from the success of turning an “I won’t” challenge into an “I will” challenge. For your biggest “I won’t” power challenge, try one of the following strategies for flipping your focus:

• What could you do instead of the “I won’t” behavior that might satisfy the same needs? Most bad habits are an attempt to meet a need, whether it’s reducing stress, having fun, or seeking approval. You can get the focus off of prohibiting your bad habit by replacing it with a new (hopefully, healthier) habit. One of my students was trying to quit coffee and turned to tea as a substitute. It had all the same benefits—being a good excuse for a break, giving him more energy, easy to get anywhere—without as much caffeine.

• If you weren’t doing the bad habit, what might you be doing instead? Most of our addictions and distractions take time and energy away from something else we could be doing. Sometimes focusing on that missed opportunity is more motivating than trying to quit the bad habit. One of my students felt like she was wasting her time getting sucked into reality television shows. She had more success at turning off the TV when she set a goal for what she should use the time for instead—learning to be a better cook. (She started by substituting cooking shows for the shows she had been watching—a good first step—then transitioned from couch to kitchen.) • Can you redefine the “I won’t” challenge so that it becomes an “I will” challenge? Sometimes the very same behavior can be thought of in two different ways. For example, one of my students redefined “not being late” as “being the first person there” or “arriving five minutes early.” This may not sound like much of a difference, but he found himself far more motivated—and less likely to be late—when he turned being on time into a race he could win. If you focus on what you want to do, instead of what you don’t want to do, you sidestep the dangers of ironic rebound.

If you take on this experiment, commit to spending this week focusing on positive action rather than prohibition. At the end of the week, consider how well you did with both the original “I won’t” challenge and the new

“I will” challenge.

NO SMOKING, PLEASE

Sarah Bowen, a research scientist in the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, had thought very carefully about how to best set up her torture chamber. She chose a basic conference room with a long table that could seat twelve people. She covered the windows and took everything off the walls so there would be nothing to distract her subjects.

One by one, they arrived. At her request, each carried an unopened pack of his or her favorite brand of cigarettes. All of them wanted to quit smoking, but hadn’t quit yet. Bowen had asked the smokers to abstain for at least twelve hours to make sure they showed up in a nicotine-deprived state. She knew they were eager to light one and inhale, but they had to wait until everyone arrived.

When the smokers were all there, Bowen seated them around the table. Each chair faced the outer walls so the smokers could not see one another. She told them to put away any books, phones, food, or drinks, and gave them each a pencil and paper to answer questions. They were not to speak to one another, no matter what happened. Then the torture began.

“Take out your pack and look at it,” Bowen instructed. They did. “Now pack it,” she said, referring to the smoker’s ritual of pounding the pack to settle the tobacco in each cigarette. “Now remove the cellophane,” she commanded. “Now open the pack.” She continued walking the smokers through each step, from breathing in the first smell of the opened pack to pulling out a cigarette, holding it, looking at it, and smelling it. Putting the cigarette in their mouths. Taking out a lighter. Bringing the lighter to the cigarette without igniting it. At each step, she forced participants to stop and wait for several minutes. “People were not having a good time,” Bowen told me. “I could literally see their craving. They were doing anything to distract themselves: playing with the pencils, looking around, fidgeting.” Bowen wasn’t enjoying the smokers’ agony, but she needed to be sure they were suffering the kind of intense craving that can derail attempts to quit. Bowen’s real aim was to investigate whether mindfulness can help smokers resist cravings.

Before the torture test, half of the smokers had received a brief training in a technique called “surfing the urge.” They were instructed to pay close attention to the urge to smoke, without trying to change it or get rid of it—an approach that we’ve seen can be quite helpful for dealing with worries and food cravings. Instead of distracting themselves from the urge or hoping that it would just go away, they should really get a good look at it. What thoughts were going through their mind? What did the urge feel like in the body? Was there nausea, or a gnawing in their stomach? Did they feel tension in their lungs or throat? Bowen explained to the smokers that urges always pass eventually, whether or not you give in to them. When they felt a strong craving, they should imagine the urge as a wave in the ocean. It would build in intensity, but ultimately crash and dissolve. The smokers were to picture themselves riding the wave, not fighting it but also not giving in to it. Bowen then asked these smokers to apply the surfing-the-urge technique during the craving induction.

An hour and a half later, after being fully put through the wringer, all of the smokers were released from Bowen’s torture chamber. She didn’t ask them to cut back on cigarettes, and she didn’t even encourage them to use the surfing-the-urge technique in everyday life. But Bowen did give them one last task: Keep track of how many cigarettes they smoked each day for the following week, along with their daily mood and the intensity of urges to smoke.

For the first twenty-four hours, there was no difference in the number of cigarettes smoked by the two groups. But starting with the second day, and continuing throughout the week, the surfing-the-urge group smoked fewer cigarettes. By day seven, the control group showed no change, but those surfing the urge had cut back 37 percent. Giving their cravings their full attention helped them take positive steps toward quitting smoking. Bowen also looked at the relationship between the smokers’ moods and their urges to smoke. Surprisingly, smokers who had learned to surf the urge no longer showed the typical correlation between feeling bad and giving in. Stress no longer automatically led to lighting up. This is one of the best side effects of surfing the urge: You learn how to accept and handle all your difficult inner experiences, and no longer need to turn to unhealthy rewards for comfort.

Although this smoking study was a scientific experiment, not a full-blown intervention, Bowen also leads longer programs for people in residential substance-abuse programs. (“We do imagery instead of actual exposure to the triggers,” she told me. “For many reasons, we can’t bring in crack pipes.”) Bowen’s most recent study randomly assigned 168 men and women to either treatment as usual for substance-abuse recovery or to a mindfulness program that taught them surfing the urge and other strategies for handling stress and urges. Over a four-month follow-up, the mindfulness group had fewer cravings and was less likely to relapse than the treatment-as-usual group. Once again, the training disrupted the automatic link between feeling bad and wanting to use. For the people who learned to surf the urge, stress no longer increased the risk of relapse.

WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: SURF THE URGE

Whatever your drug of choice, surfing the urge can help you ride out cravings without giving in. When the urge takes hold, pause for a moment to sense your body. What does the urge feel like? Is it hot or cold? Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut? Stay with the sensations for at least one minute. Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality. Not acting on an urge can sometimes increase its intensity—like an attention-seeking child throwing a temper tantrum. See if you can stay with these sensations without trying to push them away, and without acting on them. As you practice surfing the urge, the breath can be a wonderful source of support. You can surf the sensations of breathing—noticing how it feels to inhale and exhale—alongside the sensations of the urge.

When you first practice this strategy, you may surf the urge and still give in. In Bowen’s smoking study, everybody smoked as soon as they left the torture chamber. Don’t use your first few attempts as a final verdict on the value of this approach. Surfing the urge is a skill that builds with time, like any new form of self-control. Want to practice the skill before a craving hits? You can get a good sense of the technique just by sitting still and waiting for the urge to scratch your nose, cross your legs, or shift your weight. Apply the same principles of surfing the urge to this impulse—feel it, but don’t automatically give in.

SURFING THE URGE TO COMPLAIN

Therese knew that her habit of constantly criticizing her husband was putting a strain on their relationship. They had been married for five years, but the last year had been especially tense. They argued frequently about how things should be done around the house and how to discipline their four-year-old son. Therese couldn’t help but feel that her husband was going out of his way to irritate her by doing things the wrong way. In turn, he was tired of always being corrected and never being thanked. Even though Therese wanted him to change his behavior, she realized that it was her behavior that was threatening their marriage.

She decided to try surfing the urge to criticize. When she felt the impulse rising, she paused and felt the tension in her body. It was strongest in her jaw, face, and chest. She watched the sensations of irritation and frustration. They felt like heat and pressure building. It was as if she had to say the criticism to get it out of her system, like a volcano that needed to erupt. She had been acting on the belief that she had to get the complaint out of her, that she had to express it or it would fester inside her. Therese tested the idea that, like cravings, the impulse would actually pass on its own even if she didn’t act on it. When Therese surfed the urge, she let herself say the complaint internally. Sometimes she saw it as ridiculous, and sometimes it felt really true. Either way, she let it be in her mind without arguing and without expressing it. Then she imagined her irritation as a wave and rode out the feelings. She found that the impulse would subside if she breathed and stayed with the feeling in her body.

Surfing the urge is not just for addiction; it can help you handle any destructive impulse.

INNER ACCEPTANCE, OUTER CONTROL

As you begin to experiment with the power of acceptance, it’s important to remember that the opposite of suppression is not self-indulgence. All of the successful interventions we’ve seen in this chapter—accepting anxiety and cravings, ending restrictive dieting, and surfing the urge—teach people to give up a rigid attempt to control their inner experiences. They don’t encourage people to believe their most upsetting thoughts or lose control of their behavior. Nobody’s telling socially anxious people to stay home worrying, or encouraging dieters to eat junk food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or telling recovering addicts, “Get high if you want to!” In many ways, these interventions tie together everything that we’ve seen so far about how willpower works. They rely on the mind’s ability to observe ourselves with curiosity, not judgment. They offer a way to handle the biggest enemies of willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress. They ask us to remember what we really want so we can find the strength to do what is difficult. The fact that this same basic approach helps such a wide range of willpower challenges, from depression to drug addiction, confirms that these three skills—self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most—are the foundation for self-control.

THE LAST WORD

Trying to control our thoughts and feelings has the opposite effect of what most people expect. And yet rather than catch on to this, most of us respond to our failures with more commitment to this misguided strategy. We try even harder to push away thoughts and feelings we don’t want to have in a vain attempt to keep our minds safe from danger. If we truly want peace of mind and better self-control, we need to accept that it is impossible to control what comes into our mind. All we can do is choose what we believe and what we act on.

CHAPTER SUMMARY

The Idea: Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel, or do the thing you most want to avoid.

Under the Microscope

• Investigate ironic rebound. Is there something you try to avoid thinking about? Does suppression work, or does trying to push something out of your mind make it come back stronger?

• What’s on your Most-Wanted list? In your experience, is it true that outlawing something increases desire for it?

Willpower Experiments

• Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think. When an upsetting thought comes to mind, notice it and how it feels in your body. Then turn your attention to your breathing, and imagine the thought dissolving or passing by.

• Accept those cravings—just don’t act on them. When a craving hits, notice it and don’t try to immediately distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white-bear rebound effect, and remember your goal to resist.

• Surf the urge. When an urge takes hold, stay with the physical sensations and ride them like a wave, neither pushing them away nor acting on them.

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