When I was younger my mother gave me a small box of worry dolls, each perhaps half an inch high; I was supposed to whisper a worry to each doll so they could worry over it instead of me. The more modern, intangible version is to imagine thoughts as leaves floating down a stream, known by the technical term “cognitive defusion“. It is a practice I imagine will be widely promoted as people make and attempt to keep New Year’s resolutions and try to keep their pessimistic thoughts at bay. But can imagining that you give a negative thought to someone else or watch it drift away really help you accomplish anything?
Turns out, it might. High school students in Spain were asked to write either positive or negative thoughts about their body; they were then told either to check those thoughts for grammar and spelling (every high school student’s favorite activity) or to think about them and then physically throw them in a trash can (no word on whether students “threw” in a simple toss or a more vehement or ritualized chuck). Finally, the students were asked to rate on a 9 point scale how attractive they thought they were and whether they liked their bodies.
As you might expect, students who spent time some writing all the negative thoughts they had about their body thought they were less attractive than students who had written positive thoughts. However, this was only true for students who went on to check for spelling and grammar. If students threw their thoughts away, then it didn’t matter whether they’d written positive or negative thoughts; the average self-attractiveness rating was the same.
This isn’t exactly a tried-and-true method for getting rid of negative thoughts, however, because the negative thought group didn’t really change; students who wrote negative thoughts rated their bodies at 5.5 out of 9 on average, whether they checked for grammar or chucked the thoughts. Throwing out the thoughts actually hurt the positive thinkers; writing positive thoughts had students rating themselves at 6.6 out of 9, but that dropped to just 5.5 again if they threw those thoughts out. So the study shows that treating thoughts as physical objects does work, but there’s no clear practical (positive) application for the layman.
A second study got less personal (thoughts about the Mediterranean diet, not about one’s own body) and included a thought “protection” group (carrying their thoughts folded around in their pocket). Again, just writing down positive thoughts in the control condition gave people a more positive opinion of the diet (about 6.6 vs. 6.0); this approval was even more dramatic if they “protected” their thoughts (7.5 vs. 5.5), and it reversed if they threw the thoughts away (people who wrote positive thoughts actually thought the diet was less effective than people who wrote negative thoughts and threw them away).
This version of the study does give you a bit of advice for your New Year’s resolutions. If you want to have a positive attitude toward something, write down as many positive thoughts as you can and protect them somehow. Or, if all you can think of are the negative thoughts, write those thoughts down and dispose of them. There’s no word yet on whether more elaborate disposal or protection will be more effective, or whether these positive attitudes will lead to any meaningful behavior, but at least you know it’s not a waste of ink and paper.
Briñol P, Gascó M, Petty RE, & Horcajo J (2012). Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation. Psychological Science PMID: 23184587