by Niall Doherty

I recently finished reading a fascinating book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. Below I’ll share a few studies mentioned in the book, and the key takeaways from them. Definitely give this a read if you struggle with willpower.

Try not to think about white bears

Starting in 1985, psychology professor Daniel Wegner ran a series of thought experiments. The instruction he gave to participants in his studies was simple: “For the next five minutes, please try not to think about white bears.”

The result of each study was always the same: The more people tried to refrain from thinking about white bears (or anything else prohibited by Wegner), the more they thought about them. In fact, participants who tried not to think about white bears actually ended up thinking about white bears more than other test subjects who were intentionally trying to think about them.

Wegner labeled this effect ironic rebound, and noted that it appeared strongest when people were stressed out, tired, or distracted.

Further experiments by Wegner have demonstrated that trying not to think depressing thoughts actually makes people feel more depressed than if they actively try to feel sad.

Trying not to think about something guarantees that is never far from your mind.

People think you’re weird

Philippe Goldin is a neuroscientist who studies depression and anxiety at Stanford University. The people who enroll in his studies suffer from severe social anxiety and self-doubt.

Before and after some coaching, Goldin puts each test subject in an fMRI machine so he can measure their brain activity. While in the machine, he flashes up several statements on a screen and asks the participant to reflect on them. Statements such as…

  • I’m not OK the way I am.
  • People think I’m weird.
  • Something’s wrong with me.

Between sessions in the fMRI machine, Goldin teaches each participant to observe and accept their thoughts and feelings, no matter how scary or uncomfortable they may be. This is a big change from the suppresion technique social anxiety sufferers normally use to deal with challenging thoughts. Goldin encourages them not to push the scary thoughts away, teaching them instead how to handle such thoughts and develop confidence that the anxiety will naturally run its course if they don’t resist it.

The brain activity of each participant in Goldin’s studies is drastically different before and after the coaching. The fMRI machine shows that when someone pays more attention to the self-critical statements appearing on-screen in front of them, there is much less activity in the stress center of their brain.

Whatever fear or desire you try to push away will become more convincing and compelling.

Would you like some chocolate?

James Erskine is a psychologist at St. George’s University of London who once ran an experiment involving self-control and chocolate. A few dozen women were invited to the lab for a taste test of two similar chocolate treats. Before the test began, each woman was asked to think aloud for five minutes. A third of the women were given no special instructions about what to think, another third were told that they could express any thoughts they had about chocolate, while the final third were instructed to suppress any such thoughts about chocolate.

After each participant was done thinking out loud and the chocolates were brought in, they were left alone in the room with a survey, and told to eat as many chocolates as necessary to answer the questions.

So who ate the most chocolates? By far, it was the women who had tried not to think about chocolate before the test. On average, they ate almost twice as many as the other study participants, and those of them who claimed to be dieting ended up eating the most chocolates of all.

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.

No kisses for you

One hundred students were each given a transparent box of Hershey’s Kisses to keep with them at all times for 48 hours, and told not to eat a single one (or any other chocolate, for that matter).

Before the experiment began, each student was given some coaching on how to handle any chocolate cravings they might experience. Half of them were told to try distract themselves from their cravings and suppress whatever thoughts they had of eating chocolate.

The other half got a lesson in the white-bear phenomenon. They were instructed to notice when they were craving chocolate and to accept whatever thoughts and feelings came up, while keeping in mind that they didn’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings.

The results of the experiment were remarkable: Not only did the students who gave up thought control not eat a single chocolate between them throughout the 48 hours, but they also reported feeling less stressed during the experiment, and experiencing less cravings for chocolate.

When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you.

Key takeaways

So what can we learn from the studies mentioned above? Two key takeaways…

1. Surf the urge

This is the name McGonigal gives to the process of accepting a craving or impulse. Rather than trying to resist an urge, it’s much more effective to surf it like a wave. You take notice of the physical sensations in your body, and remind yourself that you don’t have to act on them.

McGonigal warns that surfing the urge does take practice, and you can expect to fall off the board a few times in the beginning. But, over time…

You learn how to accept and handle all your difficult inner experiences, and no longer need to turn to unhealthy rewards for comfort.

2. Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think

The idea here is that we can never really control what thoughts enter our heads, but we tend to start believing a thought when it plays over and over again in our minds, especially if it’s a thought we’ve tried to suppress. This mental phenomenon is what advertisers prey on, knowing that if we’re exposed to a specific message enough times, we’ll start to believe it.

The way out is to let go. That is, stop trying to control your negative or troubling thoughts. Instead, just notice how such thoughts feel in your body, then shift your attention to your breath and let them fade away.

The last word to McGonigal…

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.


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