White Bear Problem

The White Bear Problem is a psychological syndrome that describes the art of saying inappropriate things at an appropriate time.
It is remarkably like as if there resides a mischievous inner demon inside of you that whispers to us to make a fool of ourselves – an imp dubbed Gegenwille ('counter will') by Sigmund Freud[1]. Harvard social psychologist Dan Wegner has spent considerable time investigating such 'ironic' mental processes.

Suppressing unwanted thoughts is a strangely difficult thing to do, as Fyodor Dostoevsky trenchantly observed in his 'Winter Notes on Summer Impressions'. “Try not to think of a polar bear,” he challenged his readers, “and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” In his books and scientific papers, Wegler calls this syndrome 'ironic process theory', 'ironic rebound', or 'the white bear problem'[2]. It refers to the psychological process whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.

More alarmingly, the same goes for actions. Remind yourself not to tell the widow at the wake that you’re dying for a drink, and as like as not, you will. Try not to spill the longed-for glass of wine on that nice carpet: oops, there it goes. The harder you try to stop yourself making a fool of yourself, the more likely it is that you will.

This syndrome, also called Foot-in-Mouth Problem in our modern times, frequently surfaces in politics, where ignorant politicians try to answer a question on a subject that they have absolutely no knowledge about. So, they string a couple of words together, hoping to obfuscate the answer, but often their stupidity and ignorance are obvious for everyone but themselves.

[1] Breuer, Freud: Studien über Hysterie - 1895
[2] Wegner: Setting free the bears: escape from thought suppression in American Psychologist – 2011

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