Friday, January 25, 2013

Thoughts as material objects - impact on evaluations

It's hard to get rid of unwanted thoughts. What about just throwing them in the garbage like unwanted objects? In some conditions might we discard our thoughts as easily as we dispose of objects? If Mr. Descartes was right (straw man, I know), a thought cannot literally be thrown into the garbage, because it does not have a material or physical nature. If a component of our cognition is taken to be a physical object, we should be able to discard it. Briñol et al. make some observations relevant to these points. Their experiments involved subjects writing down positive and negative thoughts about their bodies. First, their abstract:
In Western dualistic culture, it is assumed that thoughts cannot be treated as material objects; however, language is replete with metaphorical analogies suggesting otherwise. In the research reported here, we examined whether objectifying thoughts can influence whether the thoughts are used in subsequent evaluations. In a firstexperiment participants wrote about what they either liked or disliked about their bodies. Then, the paper on which they wrote their thoughts was either ripped up and tossed in the trash or kept and checked for errors. When participants physically discarded a representation of their thoughts, they mentally discarded them as well, using them less in forming judgments than did participants who retained a representation of their thoughts. A second experiment replicated this finding and also showed that people relied on their thoughts more when they physically kept them in a safe place—putting their thoughts in their pockets—than when they discarded them. A final study revealed that these effects were stronger when the action was performed physically rather than merely imagined.
Now, a bit more detail on the first experiment:
The experiment was presented as a study on body image. All participants received written instructions asking them to complete several tasks. As part of the first task, each participant was randomly assigned to generate and write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her own body during a 3-min period. In the positive-thoughts condition, participants were told to list as many positive thoughts about their bodies as they could; in the negative-thoughts condition, participants were told to list as many negative thoughts about their bodies as they could (e.g., Killeya & Johnson, 1998). Examination of the thoughts listed indicated that all participants followed the instructions.
After listing his or her thoughts, each participant was randomly assigned to either the thought-disposal or the control condition. All participants were asked to look back at the thoughts they wrote. In the thought-disposal condition, participants were asked to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them into the trash can located in the room, because their thoughts did not have to remain with them. In the control condition, participants were asked to contemplate their thoughts and to check for any grammar or spelling errors they could find.
The dependent variable in our analysis was participants’ attitudes toward their bodies. Participants were told that they should record these attitudes because their self-image might have influenced their previous responses. Attitudes were assessed using three 9-point semantic-differential scales (e.g., bad-good, unattractive-attractive, like-dislike). Ratings were highly intercorrelated (α = .88), so we averaged them (after reverse scoring as appropriate) to create a composite attitude index. Higher values on this index indicated more favorable attitudes.
From their discussion:
Consistent with our hypothesis that a thought-disposal treatment can influence judgments by invalidating people’s thoughts, results showed that the attitudes of participants who physically threw their thoughts away showed less impact of the thought-direction induction than did the attitudes of participants who physically retained their thoughts....It is important to note that because the treatment was induced after thoughts were already generated, it could not affect the valence or the number of participants’ thoughts. Rather, the treatment decreased the strength of the influence that participants’ thoughts had on their attitudes.


  1. Another timely article - I just a couple days ago discussed this phenomenon with a friend of mine who's been having difficulty letting go of negative emotions.

    That bit about thoughts being physical or not: you wrote "a thought cannot literally be thrown into the garbage, because it does not have a material or physical nature." Please correct me if I'm wrong, but this isn't true, unless some sort of dualism is true as well.

    A 'thought' is the subjective product of the brain processes that generate them, so it could be said that those processes are themselves the thought, and this would give them a physical form. After all, if the processes themselves cease, so too does the thought.

    Does this follow?

  2. No, I was just setting up a straw man, saying that if Descartes was right (and he wasn't), and thought has a spiritual, non physical nature, you couldn't throw it away like a physical object.

  3. A reader just passed on this link from Neurocritic, which points out that Fig. 1 actually shows that throwing away the paper on which thoughts about the body are written down decreased the effect of positive, but not negative self statements about the body.

  4. I see - so you and I are on the same page, then. =)