From the unedited manuscript of Dispelling the Myth
“Don’t think of a black cat!”
Proposed by Daniel Wagner, this theory suggests that two natural processes of mind will conflict with each other when a conscious attempt to control mental states is made. According to this theory, any request for mental control will trigger, first, an “operating” process that checks for content needed to satisfy the request and which is undermined by a second “monitoring” process that will test or verify that the initial “operating” process is actually required. Wagner indicates that the “monitoring” processes are actually sensitive to the failure of the attempts to mental control and run consistently in a direction opposite to what is intended. The postulate of Ironic Process of Mental Control, as it is known in the world of psychology, offers a sound explanation of the frailties of human (mental) endeavour, and in so doing, it exposes a weakness in the human psyche that can be exploited through the use of well-articulated instructions. Let’s look at this further.
Foreshadowing Wagner’s work were Sigmund Freud’s theory of “The Counter Will” which as he observed was the manifestation of behaviours opposite to the individuals will in a hysterical state, and “The Law of reverse Effect” initially postulated by Badouin in 1921. The following quote deals a clearer description of his interpretations of this natural law.
“When an idea imposes itself in the mind to such an extent as to give rise to a suggestion, all the conscious efforts which the subject makes to counteract this suggestion are not merely without the desired effect, but they run counter to the subject’s conscious wishes and tend to intensify the suggestion.”
Based on this we can say that proposing an idea that the listener will want to reject or resist, and further, ensuring that efforts are put towards the opposition of this idea, will guide the listener to construct the opposite of the given idea. This may sound to you like a very complex task of reverse psychological engineering, and it is. Especially, understanding what kind of ideas would be rejected by the listener. There are countless concepts of human experience that are considered heinous and most people will resist at any time – whether presenting your subject with any of these will serve the outcome of positive influence is debatable, and in my opinion inadvisable for the most part as it will create negative tension in the mind of your subject. However, what you chose to do with this or any knowledge available to you is a reflection of your own code of ethics and morals more so than the value of such knowledge. There are also numerous impressions that will generate positive tension in your listener given the context. For example, once again, at your parents’ dinner table; you could say to Dolly that it’s difficult not to think about what the two of you did in the back of your car last night, and assure her that she shouldn’t think of talking about it now. How you say all this to Dolly depends on your style of conversation, the sitting arrangements, and the depth of your relationship with her, which as far as I can tell from this conversation, is very involved and passionate. And I know it’s difficult, but try not to think about buying my next book.
The Ironic Process of Mental control accounts for the intentional and counter-intentional effects of the attempts to control mental states. One of the underlying mechanisms of this theory is the “Dual Process Model of Social Cognition” which explains how cognitive elements of society are processed and compared in order to be employed. Social cognition as a branch of the disciplines of cognitive psychology and social psychology, relates to “conspecifics” or members of the same species, and the methods or processes employed in the brain to encode, retrieve, and process information regarding all aspects of social life. The methodologies of these disciplines are interesting and yield many understandings of the process of influence. I recommend that all those interested in knowing why these techniques work dedicate some time to investigating them further.
Now that you’ve read my short, yet very graceful explication of the Ironic Process theory, you should have arrived at the consideration that it is a principle which pervades human experience. It is borne of the natural inclinations of the human mind to desire the processing, understanding, control and suppression of certain mental states. For the benefit of your learning endeavours, come up with several examples of how you can instigate this process in the subject’s mind. There are many popular illustrations of this theory and its principles at work. Many of them use the same phrases only varying certain characteristics of the message employed to trigger the behaviour. The suggestion, “don’t think of a pink elephant” or “try not to think of a black cat” are amongst the most used in pop-culture.
This theory is the basis for the Mind game referred only as “The game” whose objective is to avoid thinking about the game itself. As a treat to you, I will now point you to the infallible source of knowledge that is Wikipedia, give it a read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(mind_game) and try and play the game. Like it’s pointed out in the article – the entire world is playing “The game” at one time or another. Expressively, this theory offers useful insight about the endeavour of mental control and more profound occurrences like self-fulfilling prophecies – but that is a topic for another conversation.
PD – Dispelling the Myth