It is common for people to try to stop their intrusive unwanted thoughts.Distraction using a replacement thought is a relatively successful cognitive control method for reducing recurrence of intrusive thoughts (Wegner & Erber, 1992). However, there is little research investigating how self-generated distractors versus distractors supplied by others influence thought recurrence. In the current online study, an adult lifespan sample of U.S. citizens (N=1913; age M=42.66, SD=16.29, range 18-82) was randomly assigned to suppress or monitor an unwanted thought during a one-minute thinking period. Participants were also randomly assigned to: 1) self-generate a specific distractor, 2) receive a suggested replacement distractor, or 3) receive no guidance about control methods. During the initial thinking period, they recorded the frequency and duration of thought recurrences. At the end of the first thinking period, participants rated their effort to control the unwanted thought, perceived success at controlling the thought, and distress. Next, participants completed another one-minute thought monitoring period, providing the same ratings. Generalized estimating equations and multilevel models indicated that during the first thinking period only, self-generating a distractor resulted in fewer recurrences relative to no distraction guidance (p=.008), as well as less effort relative to both receiving a distractor (ppp=.04), with both of these instructions resulting in greater perceived control than no distraction guidance (ps≤.04). However, this pattern was only true for the monitoring condition (i.e., for self-generating a distractor attempts). Interestingly, despite the advantages across many outcomes for self-generated distractors, this condition led to longer duration of recurrences relative to the other two conditions (ps≤.007), a pattern that held across thinking periods and suppression versus monitoring instructions. Finally, there were no differences in the trajectories of distress according to distractor condition (ps>.10). These findings suggest that the source of distractors impacts different outcomes associated with the recurrence of unwanted thoughts, and highlight the importance of assessing both frequency and duration of unwanted thought recurrences to investigate how efforts to control unwanted thoughts are helpful versus harmful.
Sarah Dreyer-Oren– Graduate student, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
Laurel Sarfan– Graduate Student, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
Elise Clerkin– Miami University
Bethany Teachman– Professor, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
Joshua Magee– Miami University