Ironic Process Theory & The White Bear Experiment

The ironic process theory posits that sometimes our efforts to control our minds result in the opposite outcome of what we intended.

Rather than successfully suppressing or directing certain thoughts or feelings, we may inadvertently amplify them. This phenomenon isn’t random but is fundamentally rooted in how we exercise mental control.

There are generally two processes at play, as posited by Wegner (1994):

  1. Controlled (or intentional) process: This is the conscious effort you make to suppress or avoid the unwanted thought. For example, when you try not to think about a white bear, you actively focus on other things to distract yourself.
  2. Automatic (or ironic) process: This unconscious mechanism checks whether you think about the unwanted thought. The catch is that to check if you’re thinking about, say, a white bear, it has to bring the concept of the white bear to mind. This system, when triggered, can override the intentional operating process, leading to counterintentional outcomes. Thus, it ironically keeps the unwanted thought in your consciousness.

White Bear Experiment

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and Social Psychology53(1), 5.

The study was designed to examine the nature of thought suppression. Participants were placed in a setting where they were asked to vocalize their immediate thoughts, expressing whatever came to their mind in a free-flowing manner over a set duration.


The participants received a seemingly straightforward directive: they were to avoid thinking about a white bear during this stream-of-consciousness exercise.

To track how often this directive failed, they were provided a bell and instructed to ring it every time they inadvertently thought of the white bear.

A large white polar bear in the snow


Contrary to what one might expect from such a directive, participants frequently rang the bell, indicating that the thought of the white bear intruded into their consciousness regularly.

Even more intriguingly, a subsequent phase of the experiment revealed that participants who were initially told to suppress thoughts of the white bear and were later instructed to actively think about it ended up thinking about the bear more often than another group that was simply asked to think about the bear without the initial suppression directive.


The results of this “White Bear Study” highlight a counterintuitive psychological phenomenon: when individuals try to consciously suppress a specific thought, that thought can become more persistent and dominant in their mind.

Instead of achieving the desired outcome of avoiding the thought, the act of suppression appears to amplify its presence, making it more recurrent and noticeable.

Susceptibility to Ironic Effects

The ironic process theory posits that counterintentional (or “ironic”) effects are most prevalent when individuals attempt to control their thoughts under challenging conditions like stress, mental load, or time pressure.

There are two primary ways these ironic effects can manifest (Wegner, 1994):

1. Adverse Conditions

Stressful environments, mental distractions, and time constraints can reduce the mental capacity needed to exercise control.

This diminished capacity makes individuals more susceptible to counterintentional outcomes.

Therapeutic approaches that focus on reducing stress or promoting a peaceful state of mind can decrease the chances of these ironic errors and help individuals align with their true intentions.

2. Intent for Mental Control

Merely having the intention to control one’s thoughts can lead to ironic outcomes. For example, the more one tries not to think about sleep, the more challenging it might become to fall asleep.

Relaxing the effort to control specific thoughts can be a solution in such cases.

However, giving up on mental control is easier said than done, especially when one believes that achieving a certain mental state is crucial.

Resistance to Ironic Effects

To resist ironic effects (where trying not to think about something makes you think about it more), people can:

  1. Avoid Mental Overload: Keep your mind uncluttered.
  2. Be Careful with Mental Control: Be deliberate about when and how you try to control your thoughts.
  3. Automate Thought Processes: Just like how repetitive actions (like typing) become automatic over time, repeated mental practices can become automatic, too. This means they require less conscious effort and might be less prone to errors.

When individuals become overly conscious of these automatic actions, mistakes might increase, potentially because the ironic monitoring process interferes with the previously automatic action.

Thus, instances where individuals “choke under pressure” might be due to the transition from an automatic action to an intentional one, losing the immunity to ironic effects that automaticity provides.

Ultimately, making mental control automatic might increase its effectiveness. For instance, individuals who frequently practice thought suppression could develop such an automatic mechanism that they efficiently suppress thoughts with fewer ironic intrusions.

Similarly, repeated practice in relaxation or mood control might enable individuals to achieve effective self-regulation, bypassing the pitfalls of ironic processes. Some individuals, through consistent practice, might transform mental control activities into habits, exhibiting advanced self-control skills.

Paradoxical Intention

Paradoxical intention is a therapeutic technique developed in the context of logotherapy by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.

This method involves instructing a patient to intentionally engage in or exaggerate a feared behavior or thought. By doing so, the anxiety produced by the behavior or thought is often reduced or eliminated.

How It Works:

  1. Confrontation: Instead of running from or fighting against a particular symptom or behavior, the individual is asked to intentionally and willfully engage in it.
  2. Reduction of Fear: By deliberately engaging in the behavior or thought, the fear or anxiety associated with it can diminish. The paradox is that by trying to experience what we fear, we often lessen the fear itself.
  3. Humor and Perspective: The exaggeration of the symptom can also make the individual see it in a humorous or absurd light, providing a fresh perspective.


  • Insomnia: A person who fears not being able to sleep might be asked to try to stay awake as long as possible. By doing so, the pressure and anxiety of trying to sleep are removed, often making it easier for the person to fall asleep.
  • Social Anxiety: Someone who fears stuttering in public might be asked to stutter on purpose. This can help the individual confront the fear head-on, realize that the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as imagined, and diminish the anxiety over time.

But, using this knowledge to trick the ironic process might not always work, especially if one remains aware of the initial intention. More research is needed to understand how people can navigate and mitigate their tendencies toward ironic outcomes.


The theory and its empirical findings are foundational in psychology and have implications for understanding various psychological phenomena, like obsessive thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even everyday experiences like trying not to think about a particular embarrassing incident or craving.

The more you try to push the thought away, the more it seems to occupy your mind.

The theory has implications beyond simple thought suppression. It has been used to explain various phenomena such as:

  • Rebound effects: After suppressing a thought, it might come back even more strongly when suppression ceases.
  • Counterproductive performance in high-pressure situations: Think of the athlete told not to miss the shot. The pressure not to miss can lead to an ironic increase in the likelihood of missing.
  • Insomnia: Trying hard not to think about the fact that you can’t sleep can make falling asleep even harder.

There are also potential implications in areas like therapy, where it’s important to understand that telling someone not to think about a traumatic event might lead to increased focus on it.

Instead, some therapies, like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), focus on accepting and observing thoughts without judgment rather than trying to suppress them.



Trying too hard to sleep, especially with distractions, can actually keep you awake. On the other hand, trying to stay awake, especially when mentally tired, might make you fall asleep faster.

Telling insomniacs to stay awake can actually help them sleep better. When they stop trying to sleep, it reduces the stress and worry which typically keeps them awake. Conversely, instructing them to sleep quickly can delay sleep onset.


There’s a debate about which is better for managing pain: distracting from the pain or focusing on it. While the common advice, like at the dentist’s, is to distract oneself, some research suggests paying attention to pain might sometimes be better.

Research indicates that distraction is generally better for short-term, acute pain. However, for chronic or ongoing pain, focusing on it (known as “sensory monitoring”) might be more effective. The reason is tied to how our minds work.

When we try to distract ourselves from pain, our brain keeps looking for things that aren’t the distraction, including the pain. Over time, this can lead to us feeling the pain more.

On the other hand, when we focus on the pain, our brain looks for anything but the pain. This means, after a while, we might actually feel less pain as our brain looks for other sensations.

Choosing to focus on the pain might be uncomfortable initially, but it could lead to relief later on because of the way our brains react. Also, simply trying to suppress pain might not be as effective as actively distracting oneself from it.

A study by Cioffi and Holloway supports this, showing people felt more pain when they just tried to suppress it compared to when they distracted themselves.


People often try to control their moods, especially negative ones. While there is evidence that they can exert some control over their moods when asked, success in this area is often limited.

The Ironic Process Theory proposes that failures in mood control can be attributed to ironic processes.

When cognitive loads, like mental stress or distractions, are introduced while trying to control a mood, it may result in the enhancement of the opposite mood.

In a study by Wegner et al. (1993), participants were asked to recall either sad or happy life events and to either attempt to maintain, suppress, or just let their mood be without any specific instruction.

The findings indicated that mood control attempts, when combined with cognitive distractions, might intensify the opposing mood.

Additional research into relaxation techniques found similar ironic effects. When subjects attempted relaxation under conditions of cognitive load or stress, relaxation attempts could increase anxiety indicators like skin conductance level (SCL). This suggests that trying to relax under stressful conditions might ironically increase stress levels (Wegner, Broome, and Blumberg, 1993).

These findings might shed light on why individuals with anxiety disorders, who often possess a heightened motivation to avoid anxious states, continuously experience anxiety. Their frequent attempts at controlling their anxiety, especially under stress, could perpetuate their anxious states due to ironic processes.


Ansfield, M. E., Wegner, D. M., & Bowser, R. (1996). Ironic effects of sleep urgencyBehaviour Research and Therapy34(7), 523-531.

Wegner, D. M., Erber, R., & Zanakos, S. (1993). Ironic processes in the mental control of mood and mood-related thoughtJournal of Personality and Social Psychology65(6), 1093.

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology53(1), 5.

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review101(1), 34.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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