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Don't Think About the Recession – It Will Make It Worse


It's Friday and no one likes to dig into anything heavy on Friday.  So here's a little tid-bit that could help you influence behavior in your organization.

Whitebear Don't Think About a White Bear

If you've read that headline you're probably having a bit of trouble keeping that cuddly white bear out of your thoughts.  It is something called the "paradox of mental suppression."   This article on Brain Blogger talks about a 1994 book on psychology  called "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts."  The book discusses an experiment designed to see if suppressing a thought had any effect on our ability to actually - suppress the thought.  

Interestingly, it did – but only a little.  In other words, trying to suppress the thought had very little effect on our ability to actually keep it out of our minds. 

But the more interesting part of the experiment was when they allowed folks to think about the white bear after they were told to suppress it.  Their focus on the white bear increased significantly.  In other words, they exhibited a "rebound" effect.  

How Does This Affect Performance

Here's what went through my mind when I read about this experiment…

It's a tough economy.  Employees are probably talking about the business – negatively.  Management probably tells their people – "don't think about it.  Just keep your head down and do your job."  

However, the conversation at the water cooler continues to increase so Management decides that they need to clear the air.  They hold a meeting where they "allow" the staff to talk about the business and how the economy is affecting it – negatively, most probably.

Will this then create the same rebound effect?  Will employees increase the amount of time they are thinking negatively about the business and the economy?  Did clearing the air actually increase the focus on the bad economy and the bad business.  How will this affect their performance?

I don't know.  

The author of the book however suggests that we indulge in "focused distraction" – finding something else to think about.  Duh…

But, from a performance standpoint I'd probably do this…

  • Not ask people to "not focus" on the problem.
  • Don't ask them to "focus on the problem" – especially after telling them not to.
  • Know that this is in the back of everyone's mind and focus on a distracting activity such as new products, new procedures, new ideas, anything that will give them goals and objectives outside the negative news in the business world.

Thoughts?  Nothing too heavy – remember it's Friday.

Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence

3 Responses to “Don't Think About the Recession – It Will Make It Worse”

  1. Kate Grey says:

    One of the key principles taught in vipassana and other forms of Buddhist-based meditation practices is how to respond to your thoughts. If you try not to have any thoughts, you will inevitably be barraged by them. And if you try to have lots of thoughts, your brain will come up dry as a bone. The key is to acknowledge each thought as it arises, gently note it without judgment, and let it go … like a stream flowing by, never attaching to one particular thought.
    There’s a kernel of that wisdom here too. Perhaps we should be mindful of attaching too much attention or meaning to recession and economic crisis: it can cripple us. I should know — I’m one of those unemployed people you hear so much about. I’m finding that for me, the biggest missing ingredient is hope. If I knew that I was going to get a job tomorrow, or the next day, I could relax into my life more and develop new ideas and directions. Instead, the negative blare of daily economic news produces mental constraint and tension. Do we want our legislators and CEOs to pay attention to the negative economic news and develop options? Of course. But perhaps a little balance is called for.
    A few weeks ago, I was reading a newspaper recap of last year, our annus horribilis, and the author talked about what a rotten year it had been and how EVERYONE must be glad to see 2009 end. And I thought “Wait a minute. Was the year personally bad for me? No question. But it wasn’t universally bad. Many people fell in love. Many people had babies. Many people got promotions, even in this economy — I know a few myself. Many people decided it’s time to start a business.” So yes, what we really need is hope, and a little less doom-and-gloom … which is why I no longer read or listen to news stories on the unemployment rates. It actually diminishes my potential.

  2. Eric Means says:

    So how could this behavior of focusing on negativity be avoided at a company during recession? Many companies are cutting back costs in this economy. People are experiencing large layoffs and cutbacks with their own eyes. Do these negative events override any positive environment or thoughts that one tries to steer clear of? Will people focus on indirect negative events longer than being told not to think of something? And if so how long could the effects be focused on….until the recession is over? In times of recession focusing on the positives can help a lot but if you are surrounded by negative events and daily actions in the negative direction, it could cloud up one’s mind.

  3. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks Eric for the comment. You cannot eliminate the negatives but the key in my mind is to not worry about things you can’t affect and get your team focused on the things they can. Complaining about, talking about – or trying not to talk about and complain about the negative keep you and your team away from the places you can have impact.
    My thought after reading this is that too often we think we should address the negative – what I took from the article was not really – address what can be affected positively and go do that.

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