Taming the White Bear: Redirecting Preoccupying Thoughts

There is an experiment that a lot of psychology professors like to share with their undergraduate students to help them understand the power of our thoughts and minds. It shows how sometimes our own thought processes can often work against our goals and desires. The story goes like this: In 1863, a Russian novelist, named Fyodor Dostoevsky, is quoted saying the following in one of his books:

“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.”

Intrigued, Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Havard, conducted an experiment in which he asked college students to speak their stream of consciousness for five minutes. After that, he gave them the same instruction again but told them not to think of a white bear. Each time they did, they had to ring a bell. What he found was that Dostoevsky’s quote, literally, rang true. Students were reported to ring the bell at least once per minute. Wegner went on to conduct many more experiments and studies that confirmed this phenomenon, dubbed the White Bear Phenomenon, translated beyond thoughts to behaviors as well.

So how can we turn this idiosyncrasy into a tool to combat the very thing it represents? Preoccupied and obsessive thinking? One simple tool is thought replacement.

While it can take practice to execute this with consistency, thought replacement is an effective technique for combating intrusive or spiralling thoughts. If you find yourself revisiting thoughts that distract you from your day, try to think of something else, something completely unrelated. For example, a white bear.

Dig into details of the white bear. What does it look like? Feel like? Does it have a name? What does it like to do for enjoyment? The more detailed the better. As you engage with the idea of the bear more and more, the less powerful your previous thoughts become. When those thoughts do come up, push your attention back to the white bear.

A key trick to this strategy is that you need to focus on the new thought and NOT focus on forgetting the old thought. The moment you start thinking about not thinking about the thought, you are going to fall right back into that preoccupation. Instead, simply acknowledge the intrusive thoughts and turn your attention back to the white bear. It may help to visualize your self turning your head from the intrusive thought and to the white bear.

When I work with clients who struggle with disruptive thought patterns, I like to help them develop their own white bear. Some people cling to the idea of the bear while others like to choose a different topic. Ultimately, the topic itself doesn’t matter. What matters is that this new thought is able to disrupt any internal narrative that you engage with using absurdity and obsession. Some clients even start telling themselves to not think of a white bear, turning the mental process against itself and disrupting their thought.

A note of caution. While this strategy will help alleviate thoughts at the moment, it has been shown in research and practice that attending to the thoughts themselves is the most effective of reducing their intrusiveness. If you are struggling with out-of-control thinking, I highly encourage you to work with your therapist or engage in therapy to address those concerns. The white bear can help you address only the temporary, not eradicate the thought process itself.

For more information about redirecting your preoccupying thoughts and how they can relate to other aspects of your health, I encourage you to check out The Happiness Lab, Season 1, Episode 6.


If you're struggling, seek help. Sharp Wellness offers individual, couples, family, and group therapy to help support you and help you live your best life. Contact us now.

Jordan Richardson, MS LPC-A

Supervised by Barbara Armitage, MA LPC-S

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