Keeping the Bear at Bay

It is said that the eminent Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky was famous for the psychological insights of his writing.

In his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions he mounted the following challenge:

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that cursed thing come to mind every minute.

Reflecting sibling relationships the world over, Dostoevsky reputedly used this little test to torment his brother!

Nevertheless this challenge does provide some insights on the working of the mind which I will return to shortly.

Twenty Five years ago I engaged Professor Richard Bawden, then at the University of Western Sydney, to help with the professional development of some of my senior managers. Richard was amusing, engaging and insightful and we spent some enjoyable times together. But essentially, he introduced us to the notion of metacognition, which he succinctly defined as “thinking about thinking”.

Later, in trying to understand the world’s wisdom traditions I was to learn that an essential exercise in Buddhism is to try to put aside our thoughts, which is in some ways just another version of Dostoevsky’s challenge. When we practice meditation we can learn to put aside our thoughts but it is not easy. Get away, polar bears!

But I would like to draw a connection between Dostoevsky’s challenge and the self-help movement. To begin with let us examine the circumstances from which the self-help movement emanated.

In the eighteenth century there developed a struggle between two different philosophies.

The first of these has been called moral realism. This philosophy championed by such thinkers as Dante, Hume, Burke, (Reinhold) Niebuhr and (Isaiah) Berlin, among others depicted Mankind in a very pessimistic way. It posited that human beings are largely sinful, with insufficient reason to grasp the complexity of the world and driven by unconscious desires that we are barely aware of. Consequently if we are to flourish we must throw ourselves into a state of dependence – on others, on institutions or, most frequently, on the divine.

But moral realism was subsequently challenged by moral romanticism. One of the early proponents of this way of thinking was the French philosopher, writer and composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe. Unlike the moral realists, Rousseau believed that, at the core, Mankind was not sinful but had an innate inner goodness. There was a stark contrast between the two belief sets. The realists distrusted the self and trusted institutions and customs outside the self. The romantics trusted the self and distrusted the conventions of the outside world. The realists believed in cultivation, civilisation and artifice. The romantics believed in nature, the individual and sincerity.

Sometime in the 1940s moral realism seemed to collapse. Perhaps it was a reaction to two World Wars and the Great Depression but it seemed as if the Western world yearned for something more positive.

It seemed as if, after the tribulations of the Second World War, people were seeking a more positive and upbeat vision of life.

It is easy to take sides in these changes in moral culture but it is important to point out that the shift is not one of change from noble restraint to self-indulgent decadence. These cultural shifts occur in response to societal changes that have to be dealt with. In the process certain virtues are cultivated, certain beliefs go too far and certain important truths and moral virtues are accidently forgotten.

This change in moral direction which we might decry because it led to a culture that put more emphasis on pride and self-esteem also had many positive effects. It had uplifting effects for many social groups such as women, minorities and the poor.

One of the first harbingers of this change of moral attitude came with the publication of Peace of Mind in 1946 by Rabbi Joshua L Liebman. Liebman had faith in the infinite goodness of men and women. This seemed to strike a common chord with the public and his book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.

Around the same time, our attitudes to child-rearing were altered irrevocably when Benjamin Spock published his bestselling book, Baby and Child Care. Spock promoted a more indulgent and essentially more humane style of parenting than had traditionally been the case.

Another who contributed to the moral romanticism movement was the psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers championed humanistic psychology which has touched many of us a result. The words which best describe human nature, Rogers concluded, were “positive, forward moving, constructive, realistic and trustworthy”. His approach to psychology has inspired everything from school curriculums, HR departments and self-help books.

The modern self-improvement movement, however, which more than anything reflects the ethos of moral romanticism, seemed to have started with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. This has been followed by a plethora of self-help books largely in the same vein that suggests that our life’s circumstances are enhanced with the application of positive thought.

Right from the beginning Peale attracted some controversy. Peale was a pastor of the Reformed Church of America. Peale and Smiley Blanton, a psychoanalyst, established a psychiatric outpatient clinic next door to Peale’s church with Blanton dispensing psychiatry and Peale dispensing religion. The two men wrote books together, notably Faith Is the Answer: A Psychiatrist and a Pastor Discuss Your Problems (1940). The book was written in alternating chapters, with Blanton writing one chapter, then Peale, and so on. Blanton espoused no particular religious point of view in his chapters. In 1951 this clinic of psychotherapy and religion grew into the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, with Peale serving as president and Blanton as executive director. Blanton handled difficult psychiatric cases and Peale, who had no mental health credentials, handled religious issues. When Peale came under heavy criticism from the mental health community for his controversial book The Power of Positive Thinking, Blanton distanced himself from Peale and refused to publicly endorse the book. Subsequent works from Blanton differed from Peale greatly in their basic premises about human nature.

Despite all this, Peale and his successors promoting the positive thinking ethos, have fostered a huge self-help industry.

It is interesting that those who write self-help books tend to be, by their own estimation, successful people. They also fall under the influence of attribution theory, that is they believe their self-defined “success” is entirely their own doing. (As I have often said I have yet to read the title of a self-help book which proclaims I am a Self-Made Failure!) As a result when they attempt to distil the causative factors behind their supposed “success” they have more than a little bias.

If we listen to Peale and his antecedents who promote positive thinking it is essential part of their accepted dogma that we should avoid negative thoughts. But this is where the bear comes back again to bite us! Unless we have spent some considerable time training our minds, trying to avoid negative thoughts is bound to invite them in against our better judgment.

This phenomenon was researched by the Harvard psychologist, Dan Wegner. He showed that our inability to put aside thoughts of polar bears had broader ramifications. After putting the Dostoevsky proposition to many American university students, he coined the term ironic process theory to describe the phenomenon Dostoevsky had revealed. He came to the conclusion that the internal mechanism for sabotaging our efforts at suppressing white bear thoughts might govern an entire territory of mental activity and outward behaviour.


Wegner proposed that this effect arises from a malfunctioning of the human capacity for metacognition (which we encountered above).

Wegner explains,

Metacognition occurs when thought takes itself as an object. Mainly it is an extremely useful skill: it is what enables us to recognise when we are being unreasonable, or sliding into depression, or being inflicted by anxiety and then to do something about it. But when we use metacognitive thoughts directly to try to control our other, everyday, ‘object level’ thoughts – by suppressing images of white bears, say, or replacing gloomy thoughts with happy ones – we run into trouble.

Metathoughts are instructions we give ourselves about our object level thinking and sometimes we just can’t follow our own instructions. Several research studies, for example have shown that if we focus on our obesity we eat more; if we worry about our smoking we indulge in more cigarettes – and so on.

Consequently the obsession of positive thinking with avoiding negative thoughts seems doomed to failure.

But then the other strategy of positive thinkers seems likely to be just as ineffective. The mantra of the believers in positive thinking seems to be that we can be anything we want or have anything we want merely by wishing it so! In this way believers seek to avoid unpleasant experiences – not being who want to be, not having what we want to have – merely by marshalling our willpower to ensure the universe meets our own selfish needs. This seems to me to be a very doubtful proposition. What’s more it is likely to leave those who have not achieved their dreams with an undeserved sense of guilt. They often think that when their ideals are not attained it must be because they just have not tried hard enough. They overlook the fact that many of the outcomes we desire lie outside our capability of attainment and are often dependent on many factors beyond our personal control.

The essential insights of Buddhism point us in a different direction. The Buddha becomes psychologically free – (in conventional terms ‘enlightened’) – by confronting negativity, suffering and impermanence rather than struggling to avoid it.

It seems therefore that it might not be so profitable to try to recreate the world with our positive thinking so that it is more benign. True wisdom emanates from accepting the world as it is and learning to deal with it.

Interestingly enough, this was the conclusion the Stoics came to, two thousand years ago. For the Stoics our judgments about the world are all that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquillity results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones. And dwelling on the worst case scenarios is often the best way to achieve this.

This was a point of view elaborated also by American psychologist Albert Ellis. Ellis’s work was a progenitor of cognitive behavioural therapy which has been one of the most effective approaches to psychology. Far from having people avoid negative thoughts, Ellis would urge us to approach any prospectively negative situation by asking the question, “What is the worst thing that could happen?”

So if white bears dominate your thoughts, what is the worst thing that could happen?  More Bundy Rum advertisements?