Thought Preemption: A Method To Control Unwanted Thoughts

According to a new study, proactively avoiding an association in the first place can be a much more efficient means of avoiding an unwanted thought. It can also help prevent the repetitive looping of unwanted thoughts.

While thinking an unwanted thought could make it more likely to recur, people can proactively control this process.

When trying to avoid an unwanted thought, people often reactively reject and replace the thought after it occurs. However, proactively avoiding an association in the first place can be much more efficient, and help prevent the repetitive looping of unwanted thoughts. This is according to new research by Isaac Fradkin and Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel that was published on July 14th in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

For most people, trying to stop thinking unwanted repetitive thoughts is a familiar experience. A cue can often bring up unpleasant memories or ideas repeatedly. In addition to the need to eject unwanted associations from their mind, people have to ensure that these unwanted associations do not keep coming again and again in an endless loop, and do not become increasingly stronger over time.

In the new study, scientists examined how 80 English-speaking adults came up with new associations to common words. All participants viewed words on a screen and had to type an associated word. In one group people were told ahead of time they would not receive monetary bonuses if they repeated associations. Therefore, they set out to suppress the thoughts of words they had previously input.

Based on reaction times and how effective participants were at generating new associations, the researchers used computational approaches to model how people were avoiding repeated associations. Most people, they found, use reactive control – rejecting unwanted associations after they have already come to mind.

“This type of reactive control can be particularly problematic,” the authors say, “because, as our findings suggest, thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the probability that it will recur. In other words, every time we have to reactively reject an unwanted association, it has the potential to become even stronger. Critically, however, we also found that people can partially preempt this process if they want to ensure that this thought comes to mind as little as possible.”

“Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could ensure that thinking an unwanted thought does not increase the probability of it coming to mind again,” Fradkin adds. “Whereas the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts.”

Reference: “If you don’t let it in, you don’t have to get it out: Thought preemption as a method to control unwanted thoughts” by Isaac Fradkin and Eran Eldar, 14 July 2022, PLOS Computational Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010285

Funding: This work has been made possible by NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants R01MH124092 and R01MH125564, ISF (Israel science foundation) grant 1094/20 and US-Israel BSF (binational science foundation) grant 2019801 to EE. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

MemoryMental Health
Comments ( 15 )
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  • artem1s

    so how do you NOT let in the thought to begin with. Seems like you’d want to describe the pre-emptive actions taken by the subjects in this article. It’s not like people aren’t already being shamed for not being able to control their thoughts. Give them some tools to work with so they don’t have that to deal with too.

  • Chris

    Ok……
    Shouldn’t you tell us how to preempt the thoughts.
    The stove is hot…..don’t touch it.

  • Bobbi-Sue Butterfly

    Agree. The title of this article clearly states “A method to control unwanted thoughts,” yet the method is never revealed!

  • Mark

    I was looking for the same thing. I read the article specifically to to find out what technique I could use to preempt thoughts. Damn.

  • Gopinath

    Chant

    Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
    Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
    Hare Rama Hare Rama
    Rama Rama Hare Hare

  • Manny

    I agree, this article is a waist of time. It just talks about a possible solution but fails to tell us what the situation is.

  • Dave

    Did I miss something or is this clickbait with no actual payoff?

  • Dash

    I agree there was really no ANSWER. And only few will catch that that is the answer. Somewhere in my mind I already know the answer. It took me reading it to trigger the answer.

  • LARRY Dee WENGER

    I’m a veteran and went through 2 years of combat service without ever using a cuss word. But even now 50+ us are later I get unwanted thoughts that are disturbing. My technique for regaining my peace of mind after disturing mental vulgarity is to pray to the Lord for deliverance. It helps me to some extent.

  • Alfred

    Gopinath,
    Repeating silly words such as hairy hairy ram a ding dong will not help with unwanted thoughts. The Reality is to have a viable solution, perhaps reading a book or taking a walk!

    • Joel

      This was the general answer the reference gave in the summary:

      We show that to meet the task, people principally reject and replace unwanted associations after they have already reached consciousness. This rejection, however, is effective at ensuring that the same unwanted associations do not continue to come to mind endlessly.

  • Pat

    Very deceitful heading.

  • Catherine Kraning

    Y’all are all saying same thing in comments. You are correct, but the abstract is linked within the article—click on it and read to find your answer!

  • Catherine Kraning

    Ok, so after reading through the abstract you all are correct, yes there really is no definitive answer to the problem of intrusive thoughts and how they affect our daily lives here. It is encouraging though to see that it is being looked into and hopefully there will come a new cognitive approach to helping those with such issues. Much is being done to steer away from just prescribing drugs to help mental disorders and instead ( or in addition to) using cognitive methods or practices.

  • Dr Jeremiah Tan

    One method of blocking a pre-emptive control of the initial unwanted intrusive thought is to close a door onto the thought in our mind and it will disappear.