The Pink Elephant Paradox: how intrusive thoughts impact our emotions and decisions

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Can you imagine a pink elephant? Is it big or small? Hot pink or pastel pink? Does it look happy, sad, tired, or excited? Give your pink elephant as much detail as you can. Now that you have got your pink elephant clear in your head, it is time to stop thinking about it. Think about any other topic for 30 seconds, and observe where your thoughts take you.

How long did you last without the pink elephant creeping back into your mind? For most of us, that pink elephant will appear back in our thoughts within seconds. The same is true of unwanted and intrusive thoughts: the more you try to suppress them, the more they will bother you. This is called the Pink Elephant Paradox.

Learning how to manage obsessive or intrusive thoughts can help you to avoid the associated pitfalls of negative emotions, distractibility, and poor decision-making.

From white bear to pink elephant

In 1987, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper entitled ‘Paradoxical effects of thought suppression’. The study involved participants taking part in two experiments in which they verbalised their stream of consciousness for five minutes. As part of the first experiment, the participants were asked not to think about a white bear. In the second experiment, participants were asked to think about a white bear. 

The researchers found that participants were more preoccupied with thinking about a white bear in the first experiment, despite being asked to not think of one. This suggests that trying to suppress a thought “has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy,” and can lead to obsession or preoccupation despite an individual’s best efforts to ignore the thought.

As writer Fyodor Dostoevsky famously put it in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Whether it’s a white bear, a pink elephant, or any other thought, this psychological process whereby our deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface has been named “ironic process theory” by scientists.

For example, when your life hits a bump in the road, family or friends may recommend that you “just stop thinking about it”. However, their advice to suppress your thoughts could paradoxically serve only to strengthen your intrusive thoughts.

The Pink Elephant Paradox can not only intensify intrusive thoughts, but it can also impact the way we think, feel and make decisions. You have probably experienced this phenomenon if you have ever felt more distracted or less productive at work because of a ruminating thought or unresolved issue.

The impact of the Pink Elephant Paradox

There are three ways that the Pink Elephant Paradox can affect our thoughts and emotions.

1. Propagation of persistent negative emotions. Intrusive thoughts might include “repetitive thoughts, images or impulses.” Unfortunately, intrusive or unwanted thoughts are associated with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive compulsive disorders. However, individuals who are otherwise healthy can also develop intrusive thoughts that are comparable to a clinical obsession. 

There is also evidence that rumination and intrusive thoughts are associated with negative thought patterns. Negative thought patterns were also found to be more common in those who did not practice mindfulness. Mindfulness requires an individual to become more aware of sights, sounds, thoughts and emotions, rather than trying to suppress them. 

Without mindfulness, the opportunity to address difficult thoughts or feelings does not arise, and instead we attempt to suppress the emotions. This attempt at suppression, rather than acknowledgement, feeds into the Pink Elephant Paradox, causing the thoughts to become intrusive.

2. Increased distractibility. A study found that those who are plagued by negative thought intrusions, and individuals who have a propensity to worry, show increased distractibility when trying to focus on a specific task. Furthermore, the more an individual struggles with intrusive thoughts, the more distractible they tend to be. 

The accessibility of social media, emails and other forms of communication or entertainment can distract even the most dedicated worker. However, if you are managing intrusive thoughts on top of technological distractions, staying focused poses an even greater challenge. 

Being easily drawn away from the task in hand, by any form of distractor, disrupts focus and prompts the brain to try to multitask. Any form of disruption will stunt your professional creativity and development. It also means that each task could be taking you far longer than it should. Being easily distracted could be making it harder for you to establish and nurture professional and personal relationships, too.

3. Poor decision making. Intrusive thoughts can be so intense that it becomes difficult to focus on anything else. Although these thoughts or emotions can appear salient, they can be masking other, more important factors or considerations.

With the intrusive thought taking centre stage, your decision making can become skewed. Rather than being able to make rational, carefully considered judgments, you may instead be swayed by persistent thoughts that lead you to make the wrong decision.

How to manage The Pink Elephant Paradox

There will be times when almost all of us experience the intrusion of thoughts that we have tried to suppress. Psychologists have shown that directly trying to suppress the thoughts is likely only to make them more persistent. Instead, there are other ways you can manage intrusive thoughts to remove their power and make them less noticeable.

Use self-reflection to reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts. Self-reflection and mindfulness have been proven to protect individuals from the negative impact of intrusive thoughts. In particular, becoming more aware and accepting of negative thoughts or feelings can help to reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts, as well as making them feel less distressing.

Mindfulness shifts the focus from the intrusive thought to the present moment, helping to alleviate the fear or anxiety associated with the thought. By accepting a thought, and trying not to see it as negative, an individual’s perceived distress at the impulse or emotion can be minimised.

Engage in constructive distractions. When an intrusive thought arises, finding a constructive distraction is healthier than ruminating on it. Refocusing your energy on a different task can help you to engage your brain in a different activity. Find something that requires almost all of your attention, such as reading, chatting to a friend, going for a run, painting or watching a film. By concentrating on something else, your mental energy is used elsewhere, leaving less room for intrusive thoughts.

Find a positive thought substitution. If you find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, try to replace them with a positive. On a blank piece of paper, draw two columns. When a negative thought persists, counterbalance it with the corresponding positive response. For example, if you think “I am a failure”, you might counteract the thought with “I made a mistake, but I am learning from it now”. If something is “too hard”, your positive substitution could be, “I will work hard to get better at this.”

By turning negative ruminations into positive pledges, the intrusive thought loses the power it has over you. Thinking of positive solutions also helps you to make any appropriate adjustments or improvements.

The Pink Elephant Paradox illustrates that trying to suppress a thought is likely to make it more intrusive. This can negatively affect your emotions, focus and decision-making abilities. Rather than suppress negative thoughts, it is healthier to acknowledge the emotion.

Finding a constructive distraction that works for you, and reflecting on positive thought substitutions, can also help you to stop ruminating about intrusive, distressing, or unwanted thoughts.

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