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Don't think about Pink Elephants!

Updated on December 19, 2014

Why you can't not think of pink elephants

I can't count how many times someone has told me not to do something. I'm sure many people in your life told or tell you some variation of the phrase "don't do that." "Don't touch that!" Don't, don't, don't. But few people know that giving negative commands to others and to ourselves can have a negative effect.

Research done by Dan Wegner shows that by giving negative commands we are making the very behavior we want to eliminate more likely to happen. But I'm sure a lot of you don't need research to tell you how difficult it is to not think about something when told to not think about it.

Dan Wegner called this phenomenon the ironic process theory. This theory is why you can't help but to think about pink elephants when someone tells you not to think about them.

Ironic Process Theory

The ironic process theory is a theory that was developed by Dan Wegner. His research into this phenomenon shows that when people try to suppress a thought, like the thought of pink elephants or any random thing, they are much more likely to think of that thing.

It's called ironic because people's minds are doing the complete opposite thing the person actually wants to occur. He did studies into this, but from a logic perspective and from personal experience this theory makes perfect sense.

Saying that I'm not going to think about my homework is actually a thought about homework, the very thing I'm trying to not think about. But once you are able to recognize that this is happening, concepts that combat this process can be used when you form goals or give commands to others.

It's kind of weird to think about and fully grasp, but it should work better. That's not just me saying that, but the ironic process theory that is saying it as well.


What this means for you

Setting goals can be a beneficial method of accomplishing things. It's something I have employed in my personal life for as long as I remember, but for many people, they set bad goals. They unintentionally set themselves up to be more likely to fail.

So when setting goals it's imperative to set them in a manner that is conducive to accomplishing the goal. A lot of times, these goals set in the positive way can lead to the thoughts of actions that can help to accomplish those things.

"I don't want to fail this test."

I have heard a countless number of people say this about different tests or projects, and it's the really bad mindset to have when preparing for a test or doing a project. .

A much better goal that avoids the problems explained by the ironic process theory is something along the lines of:

"I want to get an A on this test."

By setting a specific goal of the grade you want to achieve, it will hopefully serve as a catalyst for personal motivation to study and work harder to achieve that mark. The next thought when this is goal is "how" to achieve this. And that's the kind of thought you want to be having. Those thoughts will lead to developing methods to reach your goal.

The first goal example I stated may eventually lead to the same conclusions, but there are hurdles caused by it that can have a negative effect on performance. When the thought of not wanting to fail is brought up, all the things that could make you fail are thought about. Suddenly, the material seems more daunting and difficult than before. Once you get past the initial negativity, you most likely at some point decide what kind of grade you want to strive for. And then you decide how you are going to go about getting it.

Do you notice the difference? The second example quote creates a much more economical and productive path to the end goal, while the negatively stated one creates hurdles that must be overcome at first. Not to mention the mental effect of thinking about unproductive and negative things can be a mentally taxing and stressful thing to do.

So do the second example and reject the first example. Recognize when you are saying things in the negative sense and try to combat them with a more directive and positive statement.

Spend less time thinking about negative things.


  • Eliminate "not" or "don't"
  • Make personal goals positive
  • Make "commands" positive


If you apply these concepts in your personal life, you'll notice that there will be positive changes associated with them.

For instance, if you are carrying something, and it is requiring you to balance it, some people may think "Don't drop it." But the better way to think about it is to think "Balance." Or something similar to that. Thinking in positive terms will lead to more focus on the actual goal of the task.So this kind of thought process can be applied to simply everyday things, as well as an academic or complex things.

There's no point of focusing on what the goal is not, so do just the opposite. Focus on what needs to be done and you'll be more likely have a better chance of doing it.

Another example is when I'm lifting and my muscles are reaching the point of failure, thoughts race through my head. But I have made those thoughts more conducive to what i want to do., complete the last rep. I repeat over and over "push, push, push," or some explicit phrase at the inanimate weight I'm pushing or pulling.

This all may seem like stuff that is really easy to do, but once you start examining the things you say on a regular basis, you'll soon realize how often you say negative commands to not only yourself, but to others.

Once I recognized that phrases like "don't miss" can actually negatively effect performance, I started to mess around with it when I would play with my friends in basketball. Always in a leisure type setting because I wouldn't want people shouting "don't miss" during a game at me, so I give them the same courtesy. I noticed that saying that phrase actually can make people perform worst in leisurely activities.

How often do you say "not" to do something?

See results

Don't touch that!

So what should you do if you have to tell someone to not do something? Like to not touch your limited edition holographic charizard pokémon card. My first reaction would be to say "Don't you dare touch that!"

But I wouldn't say that because then all that person is going to think about is touching my super amazing card. So instead, I'll say "Leave that alone." "Get out of my room." Or "How did you get into my apartment?" Any of those will directly take the thoughts away from the touching of my precious card to thoughts of what I want to them to do or thoughts about their explanation of how they got into my apartment in the first place.

If I were to tell this person to "Don't touch that!" I would then have to say another statement of what I actually wanted them to do. Telling someone to not do something is not telling them to do anything at all.

Do try this at home

This is something that you can definitely try at home and in your own personal life. I have seen positive effects from changing negative commands and goals to positive ones, and I hope that you see similar benefits.

If you do happen to take my advice and try the things i have talked about, let me know how they worked or didn't work, what situations they worked better in or failed completely, with who or whom they did or didn't work with, etc. etc. Leave a comment below about it.

There's a multitude of different ways and situations that this line of thinking can be applied to. And I would wager that this kind of thinking can have a positive effect in 99.9% of those situations.


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    • FitnezzJim profile image


      4 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      This is an interesting description of the notion of a Pink Elephant. But there are other notions that are associated with the phrase; for example, the notion of a misleading fear or a mistaken basis for being fearful. In that notion, it is actually beneficial to think about and identify the Pink Elephants in your life. Once you have thought them through and recognize how inconsequential a particular Pink Elephant is, you might find that it is easy to forget.

      Well done.


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