Daniel M. Wegner (1994) Pink Elephant Tramples White Bear: the Evasion of Suppression. Psycoloquy: 5(40) Paradoxical Cognition (2)

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Psycoloquy 5(40): Pink Elephant Tramples White Bear: the Evasion of Suppression

Commentary on Navon on Paradoxical Cognition

Daniel M. Wegner
Department of Psychology, Gilmer Hall
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22903



It is interesting to see what happens when one assumes that all psychological paradoxes are related. Navon (1994) has swept through several areas of psychology with this idea in mind, but with no coherent theory to allow such integration. The theory of ironic processes of mental control (Wegner, 1994) provides this coherence for a subset of these paradoxical effects, but Navon rejects it for unclear reasons.


attention, automatic processes, consciousness, controlled processing, incidental learning, motor set, pain, panic attacks, paradoxical effects, positive feedback, psychosomatic disorders, recall failures
1. I always thought that pink elephants were what people saw when they drank too much alcohol. At least, that was the theme of the dance of the pink elephants in Disney's "Fantasia." Perhaps that is why my colleagues and I picked a different animal in our search for a target for a thought suppression study. We asked people to try not to think about a white bear (Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987). The trouble people have in not thinking about a white bear was mentioned by Dostoevsky, and appears also in stories by Tolstoy, so we thought this old Russian idiom was a good point of departure for our research. In the intervening years, I have devoted a great deal of study to the problem of thought suppression, and to mental control more generally, and had developed the personal illusion that this work was getting somewhere (Wegner, 1989, 1992, 1994). Navon (1994) has set loose pink elephants in the apparent attempt to trample all that.

2. Let me explain. I've developed a potentially useful way to account for the difficulty people have in suppressing thoughts of white bears. This ironic process theory (Wegner, 1994) suggests that any exercise of control over the mind requires two processes, an intentional operating process that exerts the desired influence and an ironic monitoring process that detects failures of the operating process. In the case of thought suppression, the operating process is a search for distracters and the monitoring process is a search for the unwanted thought. The two processes work together such that if the unwanted thought is found, the search for distracters is reinstated. The operating process requires more effort than the monitoring process, and is also more effective. So, much of the time suppression works. We are capable of escaping unwanted members of our mental menagerie.

3. The reason I call the monitoring process "ironic" is that it can work on occasion to subvert the mental control we normally enjoy. When mental loads undermine the operating process, the relatively less effortful monitoring process continues to function, searching for mental contents that signal failure of the operating process. This search has the effect of increasing the accessibility to consciousness of precisely those items that are likely to prompt the failure of the intended mental control. In the case of thought suppression, the suppression of an item under cognitive load increases the accessibility of the item. Thus, for example, subjects who are asked to suppress thoughts of a word while they are under cognitive load name the color in which the word is printed in a Stroop-type interference task more slowly than do subjects who are specifically asked to think about the word under load (see Wegner & Erber, 1992; Wegner, Erber & Zanakos, 1993). Color-naming interference suggests that the suppressed word is more accessible than a word on which subjects are trying to concentrate. This, I think, helps to explain why suppressed thoughts keep coming back to mind so insistently and intrusively. Even though an effortful operating process is looking for anything other than the unwanted thought, the ironic monitoring process subtly increases the accessibility of the very thought we wish to suppress.

4. This analysis can be extended to many different mental control tasks. When people try to relax, to change their moods, to concentrate, to sleep, to avoid being prejudiced, to ignore pain, and so on, they may bring to bear (not elephant!) both the intentional operating processes that promote the desired change and the ironic monitoring processes that search for the failure of the intentional operation. If they then encounter loads, or distracters, or stresses of other kinds, however, the very mental control intention they have implemented becomes responsible, in a sense, for its own demise. The monitoring process that looks for the failure of control produces that very failure.

5. With this general idea, I think it is possible to explain the larger portion of the paradoxical effects Navon has described. He does not seem to agree with me, but the reasons for his disagreement are not entirely clear. First, he seems not to realize that the ironic process theory is not just a theory of thought suppression (or what he calls cognitive evasion), but rather that it is also able to account for both the intentional and ironic effects of concentration, mood control, self-distraction from pain, relaxation, and a whole array of other mental control processes. Many if not most of the "lay interventions" he describes are ones that are already under study in the literature on clinical applications of mental control (see Wegner & Pennebaker, 1993).

6. The more critical problem here is that Navon prefers a collection of paradoxes, assembled apparently just because they are all paradoxes, to a general theory of paradoxical effects. He seems to think that no single mechanism that regularly yielded ironic or paradoxical errors could exist because "God or evolution" is more clever than to create such a flawed device. This is where he and I clearly part company, as I believe the two processes of mental control posited in the ironic process theory do a fine job most of the time, only to issue ironic effects when the cognitive system is taxed. The ironic process theory by no means predicts constant paradoxical errors; it instead offers a set of conditions under which such errors are likely to occur (Wegner, 1994). The Navon assemblage of paradoxes has no such general mechanism and so falls short as an account of any of them. I am entirely at a loss to understand how he could claim that his scattered approach is more parsimonious.

7. I remember as a boy reading Superman comics in which, on occasion, the hero was suddenly transported by some supernatural force into what was called "Bizarro World" -- or something to that effect. At any rate, in this world everything normal and usual was there, but twisted in some way to make it bizarre. I must admit feeling a bit as if I had been transported to Bizarro World when I read Navon's target article. The white bears I had fondly written about for several years had suddenly become pink elephants. The topic of thought suppression I had been studying for those same years had become cognitive evasion, and the strategies of mental control I'd been devoting my scientific career to discovering had become "lay interventions." I'm not willing to attribute ill intent to Navon for these remarkable parallels and bizarre new manifestations of ideas I had thought were mine, and I must credit him for recognizing that much of the data collected in my laboratory is deeply relevant to the issues he has addressed. In the end, I'd most like to think that the reason for his apparently independent, although subsequent, rediscovery of ironic effects is that there really is a coherent set of psychological phenomena that can be brought together under the rubric of ironic effects of mental control. People often find themselves thinking, doing, or saying precisely the opposite of what they intend, and there are good reasons for this in the cognitive mechanism that allows them to implement the intention in the first place.


Navon, D. (1994) From Pink Elephants to Psychosomatic Disorders: Paradoxical Effects in Cognition. PSYCOLOQUY 5(36) paradoxical-cognition.1.navon.

Wegner, D.M. (1989) White bears and other unwanted thoughts: suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin.

Wegner, D.M. (1992) You can't always think what you want: problems in the suppression of unwanted thoughts. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 193-225). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wegner, D.M. (1994) Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.

Wegner, D.M. & Erber, R. (1992) The hyperaccessibility of suppressed thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 903-912.

Wegner, D.M., Erber, R. & Zanakos, S. (1993) Ironic processes in the mental control of mood and mood-related thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1093-1104.

Wegner, D.M., Schneider, D.J., Carter, S., III & White, L. (1987) Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 409-418.

Wegner, D.M. & Pennebaker, J.W. (Eds.) (1993) Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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