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Book Review : When Dark Secrets Don’t Stop Howling

White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control by Daniel M. Wegner (Viking: $18.95; 207 pages)

In 1986, Paul Zuvella, then the shortstop of the New York Yankees, was mired in an 0-for-28 batting slump. When reporters asked why, Zuvella said, “I’ve been doing my best not to think about it, but by trying so hard not to think about it, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

This paradox--the more you want to stop thinking about something, the more you think about it--is not limited to shortstops in batting slumps. According to research by Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., many people are plagued by damaging thoughts they can’t get rid of.

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“Unwanted thoughts,” Wegner writes on the first page of today’s book, “about food when we’re on a diet, about that little lump that could be cancer, about a lost love whose absence we grieve, even about the mutton-headed thing we said to the boss yesterday--often seem etched permanently in our mind.” Many people can’t stop thinking about these things.

In “White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts,” Wegner spins out a theory of why--along with some suggestions about what to do about it. It’s an intriguing little book if only for its elucidation of the theme.

Experimental Phrase

The title is slightly misleading. This is not a book about white bears--or any kind of bears, for that matter. The “white bears” of the title refers to an experiment that Wegner did involving the phrase white bears.

He asked people to sit in a room for five minutes with a microphone and bell in front of them, and talk about anything but white bears. They were not even to think about white bears. Any time they thought about white bears, they were to ring the bell. The subjects rang the bell six times in five minutes, on average.

Repeating the Experiment

Then these same people were asked to repeat the experiment, but this time they were to think about white bears as much as possible. These people--who had previously been asked not to think about white bears--now thought about them much more than another group of people who had not previously tried to forget about them.

According to Wegner, clinical psychologists report that many of their patients are obsessed with thoughts of “self-doubt, fear of social inadequacy, moral shame, shame about one’s physique, health worries, concerns about bodily functions, worry about death, fear of dirt and contamination, concern about possible harm to self or others, sexual thoughts, aggressive thoughts, and concern with orderliness and cleanliness.”

Wegner concludes that once they get half a chance, thoughts you try to suppress come back with a vengeance. Trying to banish them by force of will ultimately doesn’t work, he says. Even if the unwanted thoughts can be held at bay, he says, they are never totally eradicated but remain a sore point in a person’s emotional makeup.

The solution, Wegner says, is to give free reign to unwanted thoughts, thereby making them familiar and less troublesome. He cites several studies that conclude that it helps to talk about things, just as your mother told you all along.

I was more impressed by Wegner’s description of the problem, full of anecdotes and subtle insights into human behavior, than in his proposals for treating it. He acknowledges that there are no easy solutions to problems that were built up over many years and that involve great interior forces.

Debilitating Thoughts

It’s surprising how widespread it is to be obsessed with unwanted and debilitating thoughts. Not surprisingly, many of one’s deepest, darkest secrets turn out to be everyone’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Wegner links all this up with the writing of William James, John Dewey and Sigmund Freud in an appealing, thought-provoking study that unpacks parts of mental life that are usually taken for granted.

If you read this book, you may find yourself thinking about things you never thought about before.


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