Mental Control

Mental Control Definition

Mental control refers to the ways in which people control their thoughts and emotions to remain in agreement with their goals. People engage in mental control when they suppress a thought, concentrate on a feeling or sensation, restrain an emotional response, or strive to maintain a mood. Mental control proves difficult for most people, and the study of mental control has implications for the treatment of a wide range of psychological disorders.

Mental Control History and Background

Mental ControlThe scientific study of mental control is relatively new to psychology. Before 1987, the term mental control did not appear in any searches of the psychological literature. The tendency for people to exert control over their thoughts and emotions has been observed culturally for more than a century, however. Perhaps the most famous instance of mental control came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who described a time in which he instructed his younger brother to sit in a corner and not to think of a white bear. Once challenged to suppress thoughts of a white bear, the younger Tolstoy stood in the corner, confused, and frustrated at having to suppress unwanted thoughts of a white bear. The earliest notion of mental control in the psychological literature came from the writings of Sigmund Freud on the study of repression, which he described as the tendency for people to discard certain thoughts out of consciousness unintentionally. Repression occurs outside of conscious awareness, based on motives of which the person is unaware, and results in the elimination of both a particular memory and the memory that represents the event of repression. Although the Freudian view of repression held a dominant place in psychology throughout the early 20th century, research investigating this view has yielded little supportive evidence. In the 1980s, researchers began to consider the impact of conscious efforts to suppress unwanted thoughts. The tendency for people to exert mental control over unwanted thoughts has been widely documented in both normal individuals and those with a wide variety of mental disorders, such as depression, obsessions and compulsions, and post-traumatic stress. These researchers sought to examine the results of attempted suppression on subsequent cognition, emotion, and behavioral tasks.

Mental Control and Suppression Cycle

Early mental control researchers sought to determine the process by which people exert mental control. Daniel Wegner and colleagues have shown that when people exert mental control, they often do so in a cyclical manner. People asked to suppress the thought of a white bear, for example, begin suppression with a self-distraction phase in which they plan to distract themselves (e.g., “I’ll think of something else”). The second phase involves choosing a distracter (e.g., “I’ll think about a book”), which results in the intrusive return of the unwanted thought (e.g., “The white bear is there again”). When the unwanted thought has returned, the cycle repeats with a return to the plan to self-distract (e.g., “Now I’ll think of something else”).

This suppression cycle comprises two main cognitive processes—controlled distracter search and automatic target search. Controlled distracter search involves a conscious search for thoughts that are not the unwanted thought, which is carried out with the goal of replacing the unwanted thought. Automatic target search entails searching for any sign of the unwanted thought, and this process detects whether the controlled distracter search is successful at replacing the unwanted thought. Research has shown that the availability of potential distracters in the environment influences the distracters that people use while exerting mental control. People also rely on their current mental states to serve as distracters during suppression. For example, people suffering from depression have been shown to choose depressing distracters during suppression. Another study showed that people who were induced into a positive or negative mood selected distracters that were related to their mood. These findings suggest that mental control is a process that involves the initial suppression of the unwanted thought or emotion and the search for materials in the environment that are related or unrelated to the suppressed thought or emotion.

Mental Control Consequences

Although much research has investigated the process by which people exert mental control in their everyday lives, other research has examined what the aftereffects of exerting mental control may be. Wegner and colleagues have shown consistently that exerting mental control over some particular event or object causes people to show a greater level of obsession or preoccupation with the suppressed object than do people who had never suppressed a thought or emotion regarding the particular event or object. This rebounding effect was first observed in a study by Wegner and colleagues. Some participants in this study were instructed to suppress the thought of a white bear, whereas other participants completed a similar task but were not asked to suppress the thought of a white bear. After participants had completed this initial task (in which they either suppressed the thought of a white bear or not), participants were asked to think of a white bear and to ring a bell every time a white bear came to mind. Participants who had suppressed the thought of a white bear during the initial task rang the bell more than did participants who had not suppressed the thought of a white bear during the initial task. Thus, the initial act of suppressing the thought of a white bear led to increased activation of the concept of a white bear in the mind of these participants.

Another consequence of exerting mental control is impaired self-control. Roy Baumeister and colleagues have demonstrated that participants who suppressed a thought on an initial task showed impaired performance on a subsequent self-control task compared with participants who had not previously suppressed a thought. These findings suggest that mental control is an effortful process that can cause impairments in a person’s ability to engage in self-control successfully.


  1. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
  2. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S., III, & White, L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.