Thought Control

November 11, 2009 at 11:57 PM

Thought Control

Caroline Crocker ‘03 (Williams College), Ph.D. program at John Jay College at CUNY and Jim Stellar

Through a friend-of-a-friend connection, I met Caroline and found her to have an interesting point deriving from her studies of the Social Psychology of Criminal Justice that nicely illustrates the operation of what we have been calling in this blog the logic circuits of the “other lobe of the brain” versus the cognitive circuits classically instantiated in the content and structure of higher education.  The contribution of these “other lobe” circuits are perhaps just beginning to be broadly recognized as underlying the different but important kind of thinking that goes on in experiential education.  But suppose you could make these processes collide.  Would that highlight the differences?  Let’s try it with a story from Caroline.

Individuals often find it difficult to control their thought processes. For example, a person trying to fall asleep the night before a big interview may be unable to keep thoughts of the interview out of her mind. Similarly, individuals attempting to quit smoking may have trouble avoiding thoughts of cigarettes. To explain why we are often unsuccessful at controlling our thoughts, Daniel Wegner (Ironic process of mental control, Psychological Review, 1994, 101:34-52) developed the theory of Ironic Processes of Mental Control. According to Wegner’s theory, the reason we often fail to banish thoughts of Dunkin Donuts while on a diet is because attempts at mental control, and thought suppression efforts in particular, involves two simultaneous mental processes. To make sure that you are not thinking of donuts, you must fill your mind with distracter thoughts and simultaneously monitor your thoughts to see whether your goal (i.e., avoiding thoughts of donuts) has been achieved. Although trying to come up with distracter thoughts requires cognitive resources and conscious effort, the monitoring process is automatic—it is effortless and it occurs outside of conscious awareness. The two processes work well to achieve the desired mental state when a person has plenty of attentional resources. The problem occurs when cognitive resources are depleted (e.g., a person is engaged in multiple tasks at once).  Without adequate resources, the search for distracter thoughts is disrupted but the automatic monitoring of the mind for thoughts of donuts continues undisturbed. The continuation of the monitoring process inadvertently brings the search target (i.e., donuts) to mind. Not only do the thoughts of donuts come to mind, these thoughts may come to mind even more easily than they would have under normal circumstances (that’s the “ironic” part).  Thus, thought suppression can have the exact opposite effect of what is intended by the individual.  These failures of thought suppression are particularly likely with emotional information. Not only is emotional information easier to bring to mind than neutral information, it is harder to find thoughts that are adequately distracting when trying to suppress emotional information.

The monitoring discussed above must come from a different brain area which is capable of enormous processing but a different kind of processing that is not compromised by the cognitive load. It seems effortless. That makes the point about there being two processes in the first place.  If this discussion sounds abstract, let us see how Caroline applies it to her research on jurors.

I am applying theory on thought suppression to jurors’ cognitive functioning during a trial. As news reports about a case may contain information that will not be admissible at trial, the trial judge may ask potential jurors during jury selection if they will be able to ignore anything that they have heard or read about the case. Wegner’s theory suggests that if jurors try to suppress inadmissible information while also trying to pay attention to witness testimony and attorneys’ arguments, the inadmissible information may have a bigger impact on jurors’ verdict decisions than if the judge had never asked jurors to ignore this information. In other words, if jurors learn that the defendant has a prior record, and then actively try to ignore this information, they may be even more likely to vote guilty than if they had not tried to suppress the prior record information.

The boomerang effect described above makes the point with which we started –  that the two processes are not only different but can conflict.  The same two processes exist in all aspects of life, including higher education.  Of course, the point for higher education is not about any conflict between them or trying to suppress something, but it is about making sure that when we attend to both the cognitive process of learning facts and theories and the more instinctive process that learns from the experience perhaps in a different way. If we can separate these two processes not only on the basis of brain areas that mediate them (an idea discussed elsewhere) but in terms of the social psychology of how humans interact, than maybe education can learn how better to drive student learning, engage students with knowledge and growth over a lifetime, and the other lofty goals that they support.

Anterior cingulate cortex and cortical re-representation of limbic processes of emotional conflict
1 Comment

One Response to “Thought Control”

  1. Mercedes says:

    Hi Caroline and Jim,
    This blog post is great! It definitely embodies “other lobe” thinking. It makes sense that these are competing processes, however, I never thought about it in these terms. The more I do not want to think about something; the more I think about it. Yet, if I do not want to think about something, I can fill my day with other activities and, for the most part, I will not think about said thought. However, as you stated, the problem does arise when I am stressed out or overwhelmed! Then, that is all I can think about! I think the theories here have important implications for people who find themselves in school pursuing a degree “for their parents” instead of what makes them happy. What they really want to do in life becomes sort of an obsession because they cannot pursue it.
    Caroline– Do you have other research experiences that illustrate this phenomenon? I am just curious what other scenarios give rise to the conflicting processes!
    Thanks again for the post!

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