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The phenomenon was identified through thought suppression studies in experimental psychology. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner first studied ironic process theory in a laboratory setting in 1987 by instructing participants to avoid all thoughts of a white bear. They found that suppressing thoughts of a white bear caused those thoughts to frequently return, sometimes even yielding a tendency to obsess about the very thought that is being suppressed. The implications for these findings have since been applied in clinical settings where thought suppression is quite common (e.g., trying not to think of one's problems or other anxiety-producing or depressing thoughts).
Ironic process theory (Wegner, 1992, 1994) has two opposing mechanisms (a dual process theory). First, monitoring processes unconsciously and automatically monitor for occurrences of the unwanted thought, calling upon the second—conscious operating processes—if the thought occurs. This theory explains the effects of increased cognitive load by emphasizing that where there is cognitive effort, the monitoring process may supplant the conscious process, also suggesting that in order for thought suppression to be effective, a balance between the two processes must exist, with the cognitive demand not being so great as to let the monitoring process interrupt the conscious processes. A 2006 study found that individual differences may be able to account for differences.
Although in certain domains, such as memorization, it appears that ironic effects of attempting to remember vary with the level of mental control over mnemonic processing and may simply be due to ineffective mental strategies.
"Intentional memory processes and their associated mnemonic strategies can be viewed as one form of mental control", When we attempt to exert influence over our memories we engage in mental control in the form of mnemonics our faculties of memory". because "mental control occurs when people suppress a thought, concentrate on a sensation, inhibit an emotion, maintain a mood, stir up a desire, squelch a craving, or otherwise exert influence on their own mental states".
Cognitive overload inhibits successful activation of operating processes Such overload has been shown to occur experimentally, when individuals attempt to aggressively suppress intrusive thoughts by distracting themselves—either by focusing on different environmental objects, or thinking of anything but the thought in question. (Overload is also believed to occur in daily life as a result of mental pressures, anxieties, stresses, and so forth). The monitoring process, serving to alert the individual of an unwanted thought about to become salient and intrude on his or her consciousness, continues to find instances of the unwanted thought creating a state of hyper-accessibility unchecked by controlled cognitive processes. Research has also shown that individuals do have a capacity to successfully suppress thoughts by focusing on specifically prepared distractions or objects—a process in thought suppression experiments sometimes referred to as "focused distraction" (Wegner, 1987).
The experience sampling or daily diary method is one way that psychologists attempt to scientifically measure thoughts. This involves "interrupting people as they go about their daily lives and asking them to record the thoughts they are having right at that moment, in that place", often by using "clickers".
One research team at Ohio State University tried to figure out how often people think about sex by using so-called "clickers", asking the 283 college students to "click" each time they thought about sex, or food, or sleep (there were three groups of students). The study found that on average men had 19 thoughts about sex per day (the highest being 388 times per day) whereas women thought about sex ten times per day. Among the study's flaws were that the researchers had not taken ironic process theory into their experimental design—students "were given a clicker by the researchers and asked to record when they thought about sex (or food or sleep). Imagine them walking away from the psychology department, holding the clicker in their hand, trying hard not to think about sex all the time, yet also trying hard to remember to press the clicker every time they did think about it."
Similar ideas appear throughout popular culture and sayings, often with variations on animal and color, such as "It's as hard as trying not to think of a pink rhinoceros." Economist George Lakoff tells his cognitive science students, "Don't think of a pink elephant", resulting in his students thinking of exactly this.
Ironic process theory is also the basis for the mind game known as "The Game", which constitutes trying not to think about the Game.
At the end of the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, the characters are asked to think of a form for the coming of Gozer. They instruct each other not to think of anything, which sees one of the team, Ray, thinking of what he considers to be an innocuous thought of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who then terrorizes them.