The cognitive and affective repercussions of thought suppression following negative personal feedback
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Past research into the utility of Wegner’s (1994) “Ironic Processes” theory of mental control for understanding depression vulnerability has demonstrated that thought suppression causes a heightened accessibility of unwanted negative thoughts during suppression, as well as paradoxical effects on post-suppression mood. However, researchers have failed to find that suppression causes the types of intrusive thoughts common to depression. To simulate the type of negative event that could trigger such depression-relevant self-referent thoughts, 76 nondepressed college students were given bogus negative feedback on a purported test of social competence. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of four conditions in which they either suppressed or expressed their reactions to the feedback, concentrated on a previously described memory of vii positive feedback, or were given “free-monitor” control instructions. Thought contents and affect were assessed using self-report measures and five-minute verbal “think-aloud” tasks, first while mental control was attempted, and again after being released from mental control instructions. Two judges counted the number of references to the feedback and rated the valence of thought content in the verbal reports. The results revealed that those who had suppressed their thoughts experienced a greater number of test feedback thoughts following cessation of mental control than did the expression or control conditions. Thus, this study is the first to demonstrate post-suppression intrusions of unwanted thoughts about a personally-relevant negative event. Additional findings supported previous research showing that suppression creates a bond between unwanted thoughts and mood context (Wenzlaff, Wegner, & Klein, 1991), and demonstrated that post-suppression thought intrusions are associated with depressive affect. The results also showed that those who had been instructed to express thoughts about the test feedback subsequently reported the least thoughts about it, and that only those who had concentrated on a positive feedback memory during mental control later reported increased positive affect at the end of the experiment. These findings offer some insight into the role of suppression in the formation of depressive preoccupations and affect, and provide some support for the therapeutic benefits of expression and positively-focused concentration.