Why pressuring yourself can backfire

July 7, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered why self-deception is so effective, here’s the always-interesting Benedict Carey in the NYTimes:

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

One study asked subjects to evaluate the behavior of a fictional black student, Donald [not my friend David], whose behavior was ambiguous.  Donald passed up on a handicapped parking space, cut off another driver for a regular space, and then chose not to donate change to someone collecting for charity — a heart fund. Some readers were instructed to suppress “bad” racial stereotypes as they read a description.

These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Bottom line: Distractions are good. So is situationism.

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