Psychologists have been using variations on this technique, but this is the first study to show it works.
To get rid of negative thoughts, write them down on a piece of paper and literally throw them away.
While it might sound too easy, psychological research shows it can be effective.
People in the study who did this found they also mentally discarded the thought as well.
Professor Richard Petty, study co-author, said:
“However you tag your thoughts — as trash or as worthy of protection — seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts.
At some level, it can sound silly.
But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts.
Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.”
To some extent, we treat our thoughts as though they are real, material things.
Think of the metaphors we use, said Professor Petty:
“We talk about our thoughts as if we can visualize them.
We hold our thoughts.
We take stances on issues, we lean this way or that way.
This all makes our thoughts more real to us.”
For one study, people were told to write down either positive or negative thoughts about their own body image.
The results showed that physically discarding the pieces of paper had the effect of discarding the thought.
Professor Petty said:
“When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative.
In another study, sometimes people kept the pieces of paper in their pocket.
This had the effect of prolonging whatever thought they wrote down.
Professor Petty said:
“This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse.”
A third study tested whether it was really necessary to physically throw the piece of paper away.
It turned out that it does help to really help to throw it away, said Professor Petty:
“The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better.
Just imagining that you throw them away doesn’t seem to work.
Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone — you can regenerate them.
But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.”
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The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Briñol et al., 2012).