Mechanisms Underlying Effective Thought Suppression Using Focused-Distraction Strategies: A Self-Determination Theory Approach

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Research has shown that thought suppression is not an ideal mental control strategy, as it can ironically increase intrusions and accessibility of unwanted thoughts. Although focused distraction has been shown as an effective strategy in mitigating such ironic effects, mixed findings have rendered this evidence inconclusive. In the present study, we sought to resolve this inconsistency by examining variables related to distractor content as mechanisms for effective thought suppression, an aspect yet to be examined. Building on ironic process theory and self-determination theory, the current study predicted that distractors associated with fulfilment of the psychological need for competence would improve thought suppression outcomes because they would be satisfying and immersive to think about. We asked 93 undergraduate students to engage in a thought suppression task and examined the influence of perceived satisfaction and immersion of distractors as mechanisms mitigating ironic effects of thought suppression. Results supported our predictions. In addition, they suggested that our predicted relationships persisted after controlling for effects of focused-distraction strategies that focused participants’ attention on a neutral object and distractors reflecting the attainment of the extrinsic goal of financial success. This allows us to eliminate the alternative explanations that need-supportive distractors are effective as a result of the focused-distraction strategy in general, or due to its pleasant and personally relevant content. Findings suggest that effectiveness of focused distraction in thought suppression can be augmented by using satisfying and immersive distractors, such as those with need-supportive content.

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