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Hold that thought! Or trash it

WRITING down negative thoughts, crumpling them up and throwing them away (as often advocated by therapists) really does help reduce negative thinking, research has shown. Conversely, positive thoughts written down and kept safe in a pocket or purse helps to embed them.

“However you tag your thoughts – as trash or as worthy of protection – seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” says Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University, who collaborated with researchers in Spain.

In the first experiment, 83 Spanish high school students participated in a study which they were told was about body image. Everyone was asked to write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her body, then to look back at what they had written. Researchers told half of the students to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them in the rubbish bin in the room, “because their thoughts did not have to remain with them”. The rest were told to contemplate their thoughts and check for any grammar or spelling mistakes.

The participants then rated their attitudes towards their bodies. The attitudes of those who read through their thoughts to check for grammar and spelling mistakes reflected what they had written down. However, the thoughts that were thrown away by the others had no impact on the attitudes they expressed. “When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty says.

In a second study, 284 students participated in a similar experiment, except this time they were asked to write down negative or positive thoughts about something most people believe is good: the Mediterranean diet, which emphasises high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and unrefined cereals, with olive oil as the basic fat. This time, some threw their thoughts away, some left them on their desk, and some were told to put the paper in their pocket, wallet or purse and keep it with them. All participants were then asked to rate their attitudes toward the diet and their intentions to use the diet for themselves. Those who kept the list of thoughts at their desk were more influenced by them when evaluating the diet than were those who threw them away. However, those who protected their thoughts by putting them in a pocket or purse were even more influenced by them.

To find out the importance of the physical action of throwing the thoughts away or keeping them close, the researchers conducted a third experiment using computers. For this, Spanish college students wrote down their thoughts in a computer word-processing document. Some later used a mouse to drag the file into the trash, while others moved the file to a storage disk. Just as in the previous studies, participants made less use of negative thoughts that were trashed than of thoughts transferred to a disk.

In a final experiment, some participants were told simply to imagine dragging their negative thoughts to the trash or saving them to a disk. Perhaps surprisingly, that had no effect on their later judgements. “The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better,” suggests Petty. “Just imagining that you throw them away doesn’t seem to work.”

Briñol, P, Gascó, M, Petty, R E and Horcajo, J (2013). Treating thoughts as material objects can increase or decrease their impact on evaluation. Psychological Science, 24, 1, 41–7.

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Date posted: 14/02/2024