Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Throwing Them Away Doesn't Help

That's my interpretation of a new paper in Psychological Science (Briñol et al., 2012), which differs from the more exciting description given in a press release from APS:

Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Just Throw Them Away

If you want to get rid of unwanted, negative thoughts, try just ripping them up and tossing them in the trash.

In a new study, researchers found that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well...
. . .
Some types of psychological therapy use variations of this concept by trying to get patients to discard their negative thoughts. But [co-author Richard] Petty said this is the first study he is aware of that has validated that approach.

So which interpretation is correct? Let's take a look, then judge for yourself.

In Experiment 1, 83 high school students participated in a course designed to prevent eating disorders. They were randomly assigned to one of four conditions in a 2 × 2 factorial design: thought direction (positive vs. negative) × treatment ('thought disposal' vs. control). The students were told they were participating in a study on body image, and asked to write down either positive or negative thoughts about their bodies for 3 min. Then the students read what they had written, followed by instructions to contemplate their thoughts and then to either throw them in the trash ('thought disposal') or check for spelling errors (control). Finally, the participants were asked to rate their attitudes toward their bodies using three different 9-point scales.1

If throwing your negative thoughts away was beneficial, you'd predict a reduction in negative attitudes relative to the control condition (which would result in a higher score, reflecting more favorable attitudes). That is not what was observed, however. A comparison of the two white bars below reveals there was no treatment effect in the negative-thoughts condition.2 In other words, body image scores did not improve in the group that discarded their lists. In contrast, there was a decline in body image for the positive-thoughts group that threw their lists away, relative to those who spell-checked.

Fig. 1 (Briñol et al., 2012). Results from Experiment 1: participants’ mean rating of their attitudes toward their own bodies as a function of the type of treatment they received and the direction of their thoughts. 

Not surprisingly, the authors had an alternate interpretation that hinged on the difference produced by thought-direction in the non-discarding control groups:
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.

...and this was because of lower scores in the positive condition, rather than higher scores in the negative condition (or both effects, for that matter). So unless you want to say there were baseline differences in body attitudes between the treatment groups (which is problematic), I'm not buying it.3


1 Scores were averaged across the three scales.

2 However, these two conditions were not statistically compared; I'm assuming that the difference between 5.6 and 5.4 was not significant. The Thought Direction × Treatment interaction was followed up only by pairwise comparisons between Thought Direction in the different Treatment groups.

3 Psychological me at camera 3.


Brinol, P., Gasco, M., Petty, R., & Horcajo, J. (2012). Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612449176

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At November 28, 2012 6:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, duh. Inducing thoughts about body image for three minutes, then throwing the negative ones away isn't going to do much of anything. Those students who perceive themselves negatively will generate negative thoughts, and the converse is true for students with a positive self image. The simple act of throwing negative thoughts away impacts the underlying cause of the negative thoughts not one whit.

Using a visualization technique such as thought-disposal is part of a larger construct that takes place in a therapeutic setting with appropriate client/therapist interaction. Through that process, the client learns how to discard negative thoughts arising from a cognitive distortion. The technique is not associated with improving perception of the problem (in this case negative body image), but rather taking away the power of the thoughts to initiate a self-critical cycle which ends in observable behaviours associated with self-loathing. Resolving the underlying issue banishes the source of the negative thoughts and the garbage can is no longer needed.

This study tells us exactly nothing. :)

At November 28, 2012 4:19 PM, Blogger Robert C Singler Jr said...

I've got a handful of studies, including some studies on journaling that Harvard shrink td wilson helped popularize that would put the science daily interpretation in the trash. I was disappointed to see this study popularized, thanks for taking the time to drop kick it.

At November 29, 2012 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this article twice and I still don't get it. The only thing I got was that the writing the thought on a piece of paper and then binning it did not work. I don't know why anybody would have thought it would anyway.

At November 30, 2012 12:20 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

That press release should go where it belongs from now on - into the dustbin of the history of crap science

At December 02, 2012 12:19 PM, Anonymous Lindsey Robinson said...

I feel that in these experiments they were using cognitive therapies. Cognitive therapy focuses on changing the client's unrealistic and maladaptive beliefs. I feel like this method of therapy would not work in this situation because the thoughts might not be gone forever and the person's beliefs are not being changed just being set aside.

At December 02, 2012 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that if there is not an actual problem, making people think about their body image can bring undesired thoughts; it is possible that because of the thinking process, the person become more conscious about things they don't like about their bodies, and by the time they try to throw away those thoughts it doesn't work. Now, if there is an pre-existent problem, like a bad memory, or a disorder, talking about it, writing about it and analyzing the issue, can bring some relief to the person and some thoughts may be discharged.
My point here is that we don't need to put more negative thoughts in the head of people, we don't want to promote thinking about negative things, and I think that was the problem with the experiment, they could work with people who already have a misperception of their bodies and see how much improvement in their own perception they can get after the therapy.

At December 04, 2012 5:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The editorial board of Psychological Science has been infested by a certain category of social psychologists that lets in this type of nonsense. We just have to wait until they all go down the Stapel and Smeesters way, I'm afraid.

At December 05, 2012 3:02 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for pointing out many other problems with this study, especially from a therapeutic point of view. Findings like these are often interpreted as revealing the mechanisms of how cognitive therapies work. But it's really not so simple.

Anonymous of December 04, 2012 5:20AM - I'm not encouraged by this statement from the outgoing Editor:

"...the ideal Psychological Science manuscript is difficult to define, but easily recognized — the topic is fundamental to the field, the design is elegant, and the findings are breathtaking."

At December 11, 2012 1:05 AM, Blogger Kaitlyn S. C Hatch said...

I love stuff like this. I love asking about the specifics of how someone came to make a statement based on a 'study' and that more often than not their interpretation misconstrued the actual data collected.


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