Making Mind Over Matter Work For You

Treating thoughts as things may help individuals hold on or let go of them

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Wouldn't it be nice to flush negative thoughts down the toilet – and keep them there? Or to carry happy thoughts around in your purse to help you remember them? Both may actually work.

A recent study found that treating your thoughts like things may help you actually put mind over matter. In a series of three experiments, people who threw away papers or computer documents where they stored their thoughts were less influenced by them.

But thoughts held more power for the individuals asked to keep the paper with them or to store computer files.

Psychologists hope these findings might help people deal with grief or loss or else help them retain more positive thoughts about themselves.

"Throw away negative thoughts – literally."

The study, led by Pablo Briñol, from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Ohio State University, aimed to find out whether thinking of thoughts as actual objects could help change how people dealt with those thoughts.

The researchers conducted three experiments for the study. In the first, 83 Spanish high school students were told to write down positive or negative thoughts about their bodies for three minutes.

Then the participants were asked to look over what they had written. Half of them were told to think about what they wrote and then throw the paper into a trash can in the room.

The other half were told to think about what they wrote and then to check for grammar or spelling mistakes in their writing.

Afterward, both groups rated their attitudes about their bodies on a scale of 1 to 9 for three different assessments: good to bad, unattractive to attractive and like to dislike.

When the researchers analyzed what the students had written and how they rated themselves, the results revealed that students who "kept" their thoughts literally on the paper (the spellcheckers) rated themselves more closely to what they had written.

In other words, those who wrote positive thoughts ranked themselves more positively on the scales, and those who wrote negative thoughts ranked themselves more negatively.

But those who threw away the pieces of paper did not show a correlation between what they wrote down and how they rated themselves. Regardless of whether they wrote down positive or negative things, their ratings of their bodies did not match up with the negativity or positivity of what they wrote.

The second study involved 284 students who were asked to write negative or positive thoughts about the Mediterranean diet (which is generally considered to be a good type of diet).

Some individuals were told to throw away the paper they wrote on, some were told to keep it at their desk, and some were told to keep the paper in their wallet, pocket or purse.

Then all the participants rated their attitudes toward the diet and whether they might consider using it.

An analysis of the responses showed that those who threw away the paper were less influenced by what they had written in their ratings of the diet while those who kept it at their desk were more influenced by what they had written. Those who kept it with them in a pocket or purse were the most influenced by what they had written.

Finally, the third experiment involved 78 Spanish college students who wrote their thoughts about the Mediterranean diet into a word processing document on the computer and were then randomly asked to do one of four things.

One group was then asked to later drag the document to the computer's recycle bin, and another group was asked to move it to a storage disk. The other two groups were asked to imagine either dragging it to the recycle bin or to imagine dragging it on to the storage disk.

Again, those who dragged the document to the recycle bin were less influenced by what they had written when they were asked about the diet later whereas those who had stored the document were more influenced by what they had written.

However, there wasn't much difference between the groups that imagined moving the document to the recycle bin versus imagining moving it to storage. It was actually throwing it away or keeping it that appeared to influence the individuals' later thoughts.

The researchers concluded that the three experiments together reveal that treating your thoughts as actual objects may help individuals gain some control over keeping or discarding them.

"This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse," said co-author Richard Petty in a release about the study. This could be beneficial for helping individuals learn to have more positive thoughts.

On the other hand, the opposite may help psychologists teach individuals to give their negative thoughts less power – by literally tossing them into the trash.

"The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better," Petty said in the release. "Just imagining that you throw them away doesn't seem to work."

The study was published November 26 in the journal Psychological Science. The research was funded by the US National Science Foundation and a grant from the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (Ministry of Science and Innovation) in Spain. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 26, 2012
Last Updated:
December 29, 2012