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Ironic rebound effect

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Ironic rebound effects characterize the unanticipated problems that arise when individuals strive to suppress particular thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, or emotions. In particular, these suppressed cognitions and feelings over resurface, even more intensely than before (Wegner, 1994).

If individuals attempt to suppress their anger, for example, striving vigorously to divert their thoughts from the sources of this emotion, these emotions dissipate. After a period of time, however, their rage returns, usually stronger than was the anger they experienced before they suppressed this emotion (Wenzlaff & Bates, 2000). Similarly, after individuals attempt to disregard doubts about themselves, their self esteem actually declines and their anxiety rises (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005). Likewise, when individuals feel compelled to condemn some activity, such as a risky act, they are actually more likely to undertake that activity in the future (Maio & Olson, 1998).

Evidence of ironic rebound

The original paradigm

Ironic rebound was first uncovered by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987). In their seminal study, some participants were first asked to suppress any thoughts about white bears over the course of five minutes. Next, these participants were encouraged to think of a white bear over the next five minutes. During both periods, they were told to express their thoughts aloud. Another sample of participants undertook the same tasks, but in the reverse order.

The instruction to suppress thoughts about white bears did not prevent cognitions or images of this animal. Furthermore, participants could more readily entertain thoughts of a white bear after, compared to before, they were instructed to suppress cognitions about this animal. Hence, a specific thought, when suppressed, tended to be entertained more frequently later, called ironic rebound (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987).

Initially, some scholars challenged the design of this study. In this study, all participants completed two tasks, both of which involved reporting their thoughts. Perhaps, after they completed one task, they could more readily report their thoughts on the second task. Hence, after participants attempted to suppress white bears on one task, they could subsequently entertain these thoughts more readily on the second task, merely because they had practiced reporting their cognitions. Suppression itself might be irrelevant (see Clark, Ball & Pape, 1991& Lavy & van den Hout, 1990). Nevertheless, even when this limitation is redressed, the rebound effect tends to persist. For example, individuals are more likely to report or experience a particular thought after they attempt to suppress, rather than express, this cognition for a specific time period (see Clark, Winton & Thynn, 1993& Geeraert, & Yzerbyt, 2007& for divergent findings, see McLean & Broomfield, 2007).

The effect of ironic rebound on behavior

Most of the research on ironic rebound has examined the effect of suppression on the rebound of thoughts or emotions. Fewer studies, however, have examined the effect of thought suppression on behavior.

Denzler, Forster, Liberman, and Rozenman (2010), however, showed that thought suppression can manifest in behavior. To illustrate, in one of their studies, participants watched a coke advertisement. Some, but not all, participants were asked not to think about thirst or drinking while watching this ad--and, indeed, to ring a bell whenever these thoughts did emerge. A portion of these individuals were also told this task is very difficult.

Later, when participants assumed they were not longer monitored, they were granted an opportunity to drink some soft drinks. If participants were told to suppress thoughts about thirst or drinking, they actually drank more of this soft drink. Yet, this pattern of findings did not emerge in the people who were told this suppression task is very difficult.

According to the researchers, when people cannot readily suppress a thought, such as thirst, they assume they must be very thirsty. They drink more fluid as a consequence. If told that most people struggle on this task, however, they ascribe this difficulty to the task instead of to their thirst.

Mechanisms that underpin ironic rebound

Ironic process theory

The most accepted and promulgated explanation of these ironic rebound effects was formulated by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987), often referred to as the two component model of cognitive control or ironic process theory. This model assumes that two mechanisms, called the monitor and operator, underpin suppression. The monitor attempts to detect or identify thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, or impulses that need to be suppressed. The operator then inhibits these cognitions or feelings.

The monitor continues to operate, even without conscious effort. In contrast, the operator is terminated once effort or attention shifts to other activities. As a consequence, when individuals no longer strive to suppress some thought or emotion, only the monitor persists. Individuals become especially sensitive to memories, events, and feelings that are related to the thought or emotion that was suppressed--and this sensitivity underpins the ironic rebound effect (see also Dalgleish, Yiend, Schweizer & Dunn, 2009).

To illustrate, with reference to a traditional example, suppose individuals were instructed to inhibit mental images of a white bear (Wyland & Forgas, 2007). The monitor would strive to uncover images that entail features of white bears-white fur, four legs, and so forth. The operator would then suppress these mental images, perhaps by shifting attention to other concepts or objects. When the instruction to inhibit this image is repealed, the effort devoted to this task subsides, the operator is inhibited, but the monitor persists. The individual becomes more sensitive to mental images of features that coincide with white bears. This animal, therefore, is more likely to penetrate the conscious musings of individuals.

Research supports the proposition that distracting thoughts, at least partly, facilitate the inhibition of unwanted cognitions or feelings. For example, individuals could more readily inhibit mental images of a white bear if they were encouraged to think about a red Volkswagen (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987).

Studies also indicate that perhaps the anterior cingulate, a region in the cortex of the brain, might be involved in thought suppression. Specifically, this region is especially active when individuals attempt to suppress specific thoughts, as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (Wyland, Kelley, Macrae, Gordon, & Heatherton, 2003). This finding is consistent with the argument that perhaps the anterior cingulate is germane to the inhibition of powerful tendencies, such as the Stroop task in which individuals must name the colour of words rather than read these terms (Peterson, Skudlarski, Gatenby, Zhang, Anderson, & Gore, 1999). Conceivably, the anterior cingulate might act as the monitor-surveying the content of mental experience to detect thoughts or feelings that need to be suppressed.

Associations with distracting cues

Another cognitive mechanism that can generate ironic rebound revolves around associations with distracting cues. To illustrate, when individuals attempt to suppress a thought, such as a white bear, they deliberately shift their attention to other features or objects in their environment: a desk lamp, a large tree, and a humming noise, for example. Over time, individuals develop associations between the unwanted thought--in this instance, the white bear--and these various objects. Subsequently, these objects will prime the corresponding thoughts (Muris, Merckelbach & Horselenberg, 1996). When individuals notice the desk lamp again, or one of these other features, images of the white bear may be primed.

Several strands of evidence accord with this account. First, suppressed thoughts are less likely to infiltrate the awareness of individuals after they shift to another environment or context (Wegner, Schneider, Knutson & McMahon, 1991& Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne & Jetten, 1994). Presumably, after the context is changed, the features that were associated with the unwanted thought no longer pervade the environment. Second, if individuals can orient their attention to a single object while suppressing a thought, these unwanted cognitions are less likely to return later (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987). If individuals do not focus on a single object, they later report they shifted their attention to many features and stimuli in the environment, none of which maintained their concentration, however (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987).

Motivational theories

In contrast to the two component model, other scholars have ascribed the ironic rebound effect to mechanisms that relate to goals and motivation (e.g., Forster & Liberman, 2005). According to Martin and Tesser (1996), for example, whenever individuals participate in studies that examine the ironic rebound effect, they form the goal to suppress a specific thought or emotion. Perhaps their goal is to inhibit mental images of a white bear or suppress their anger. These participants, however, are seldom able to fulfil this goal completely. They frequently, although inadvertently, entertain the prohibited thought or emotion. This goal, therefore, is not fulfilled, and unrealized goals remain activated in memory, usually at a heightened state (Zeigarnik, 1927). Individuals, therefore, are very sensitive to any thoughts or feelings, such as white bears or feelings of anger, that are germane to this goal. These thoughts and feelings are, as a consequence, more likely to be entertained, culminating in the ironic rebound effect.

If this explanation is correct, the ironic rebound effect should dissipate if their goal to inhibit the prohibited thought or feeling is fulfilled---or, at least, perceived to be fulfilled. Research indeed substantiates this hypothesis. Martin and Tesser (1996) showed the ironic rebound effect subsides when participants are informed they had successfully inhibited a specific thought or emotion--feedback that putatively implies that individuals had fulfilled their goal.

Furthermore, consistent with this motivational account, curbing the motivation to fulfil specific goals mitigates the ironic rebound effect (e.g., Liberman & Forster, 2000). In one study, for instance, participants were asked to describe briefly a possible day in the life of a specific body builder (Koole & van Knippenberg, 2007). Some of these participants were asked to avoid references to traits or events that are typical of body builders-and thus suppress to suppress stereotypes. Next participants received either favorable or neutral feedback in response to a personality inventory. Finally, participants completed tasks that assess the salience of concepts that correspond to the stereotypes of body builders. In particular, they received a series of words, with some of the letters removed, and were instructed to identify these terms. Some of the words related to body builders, such as muscle, sweat, broad, and pills.

Consistent with the ironic rebound effect, participants rapidly identified the words that correspond to body builders. This effect, however, did not apply to participants had had received positive feedback on the personality inventory. Conceivably, after individuals receive positive feedback, their motivation to fulfil obstructed goals dissipates& they feel these goals are no longer essential. This finding, therefore, aligns with the proposition that unfulfilled goals underpin the ironic rebound effect.

Nevertheless, this account cannot explain all the findings that have emerged from the literature on ironic rebound. According to this theory, unwanted thoughts should intrude consciousness only after the goal to suppress has been interrupted. Nevertheless, these thoughts are often intrusive while participants attempt to suppress these cognitions as well (Erber & Wegner, 1996). In contrast, this finding is consistent with the concept of a monitor, as defined by ironic process theory.

The motivational inference model

The motivational inference model is another explanation that has been posited to explain ironic rebound. Specifically, if people cannot suppress a particular thought, they assume this thought must correspond to one of their motivations. For example, if they can suppress a thought about aggression, they assume they must be angry. This assumptions then shapes their cognition and behavior.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Denzler, Forster, Liberman, and Rozenman (2010), participants watched a coke adv. Some participants were asked not to think about thirst or drinking while watching this ad. A portion of these individuals were also told this task is very difficult.

If participants were told to suppress thoughts about thirst or drinking, they later drank more while monitored unobtrusively. Yet, this pattern of findings did not emerge in the people who were told this suppression task is very difficult.

According to the researchers, when people cannot readily suppress a thought about thirst, they assume they must be very thirsty. They drink more fluid later as a consequence. Yet, if told that most people struggle on this task, they ascribe this difficulty to the task instead of to their thirst.


Mood and emotions

The ironic rebound effect explains many recurring problems in modern society. Individuals who strive to inhibit or suppress their emotions when upset, for instance, are especially inclined to experience depression (John & Gross, 2004) as well as anxiety disorders (Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, & Hofmann, 2006). These unpleasant emotions tend to recur, compromising the wellbeing of individuals. Depression and anxiety, hence, might partly reflect undue shame towards undesirable thoughts or feelings, which encourages suppression and thus amplifies ironic rebound effects.

These mood disorders correspond to a decline in self esteem. Indeed, when individuals attempt to suppress their personal flaws-deficiencies on specific tasks or limitations in their character-their self esteem later deteriorates (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005).

Individuals who suppress these personal concerns before they retire to bed are especially likely to experience difficulties. They do not fall asleep quickly or sleep soundly during the night (Harvey, 2003). These concerns or anxieties resurface during the night, manifest during dreams, and disturb sleep. To verify that suppressed concerns can infiltrate dreams, in one study, some individuals were instructed not to form an image of a specific person-a friend or family member--several minutes before they retired to bed. Other participants were invited to form an image of a friend for five minutes. Individuals who had attempted to suppress these images were more inclined to dream about this person that night (Wegner, Wenzlaff, & Kozak, 2004).

Suppressed thoughts and feelings not only affect the attitudes of individuals towards themselves, but also shapes the attitudes ofindividuals towards other social collectives. In one study, some participants reflected upon an experience in which they did not perform proficiently on a task that reflects intelligence. This exercise was intended to highlight one of their flaws--an experience that often incites individuals to suppress a doubt about themselves. Subsequently, these participants read a brief excerpt about an African American. Relative to participants who had not reflected upon their limitations, these individuals were more inclined to perceive this African American as unintelligent. The suppressed thought or feeling had infiltrated into their perception of other social categories (Govorun, Fuegen, & Payne, 2006).

Motivation and performance

Suppression not only compromises mood and wellbeing but also impairs the capacity of individuals to accommodate these problems. Suppression of one thought, feeling, belief, attitude, or behavior consumes a form of mental energy or resource that is needed to inhibit other impulses, tendencies, or emotions. Individuals become increasingly unable to elevate their mood, augment their motivation, and improve their performance. One study, for example, revealed that individuals are less able to maintain effort and motivation after they abstained from interacting with a colleague, referred to as silent treatment (Ciarocco, Summer & Baumeister, 2001). Incessant and elevated levels of suppression--ubiquitous in employees who serve customers, and need to exhibit a friendly, supportive, and enthusiastic demeanour--tends to culminate in burnout (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002).

Attitude change

Experts often want to explode myths about health and other topics. For example, they might want to challenge the myth that people with mental illness will never live a fulfilling life. In these instances, experts might present a myth, such as "People with mental health can never get better". They will then present the fact that counters this myth, such as "People with mental illness lead active productive lives". Interestingly, as Yeh, Jewell, and Hu (2013) showed, this format, in which myths precede facts, is less influential than presenting the facts alone--provided the message seems very relevant to the readers.

For example, in one study, conducted by Yeh, Jewell, and Hu (2013), some participants were exposed to five sets of myths and facts. Other participants were exposed to the facts only. All these facts revolved around mental illness. Next, individuals were asked to indicate the degree to which mental illness is relevant to their lives& that is, they answered questions on whether they or their family members had experienced mental illness. Finally, participants completed questions that gauge attitudes to mental illness--such as whether they would date or hire someone with a mental illness.

As predicted, if participants were exposed only to the facts instead of to the myths and facts, they were more likely to express positive attitudes to people with mental illness. This pattern was observed only in people who perceived mental illness as relevant to their lives. Presumably, these individuals were motivated to suppress the myths, and the suppression of these myths may have amplified the salience of these misconceptions. Interestingly, if participants had been exposed to the myths, they assumed they learnt more information, even though their attitudes were not as likely to change.

Social skills

Suppression of emotions has also been shown to compromise social functioning, as shown by Srivastava, Tamir, McGonigal, John, and Gross (2009). In their study, participants were experiencing the transition to college. Participants rated the extent to which they suppress emotions, responding to items such as "I keep my emotions to myself" or "When I am feeling negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness), I make sure not to express them". These authors showed that individuals who suppressed the expression of emotion reported less closeness, support, and satisfaction with friendships.

Individual characteristics that curb the ironic rebound effect

Some individuals are less inclined to suppress undesirable thoughts or emotions and, therefore, these cognitions or feelings are less likely to return. Rather than suppress upsetting thoughts or feelings, for instance, older individuals are more inclined to consider problems from a different perspective-attempting to recognize the benefits of undesirable events or characteristics (John & Gross, 2004). If they had been criticized by their supervisor, they might attempt to perceive this event as an opportunity to learn and motivate themselves.

Mood and the ironic rebound effect

Negative moods tend to amplify both the suppression of thoughts as well as the ironic rebound effect. In one study, for example, individuals were instructed to transcribe their thoughts but, if possible, inhibit any reference to white bears. Participants who were feeling anxious, because they had earlier been criticized, were more likely than participants who feeling happy to follow this instruction successfully. Subsequently, participants were instructed to continue transcribing their thoughts, but the instruction to inhibit any references to white bears was rescinded. During this phase, participants who were feeling anxious were more likely to allude to white bears (Wyland & Forgas, 2007).

Koole and van Knippenberg (2007) also uncovered evidence that implies that positive moods might curb the ironic rebound effect. In particular, they discovered that positive feedback, putatively in response to a personality inventory, tempered the ironic feedback effect. In their study, however, mood did not seem to mediate this association. The authors, however, conceded their measure of mood might have been limited. More sensitive measures of mood-indirect measures that gauge unconscious affect-might have uncovered different results.

In contrast to these findings, Guinote (2007) showed that a sense of power can amplify the ironic rebound effect. In this study, participants were instructed to imagine themselves in either a powerful or subordinate role. They were then asked to suppress their stereotypes of Muslims when describing a Muslim job applicant. Later, these suppressed stereotypes were more likely to bias their evaluations of other individuals, especially if the participants had assumed a powerful role.

Conceivably,if individuals had experience a sense of threat, not power, while they attempt to suppress impulses, these inhibited feelings or thoughts are subsequently less likely to influence their behavior. When individuals experience a sense of threat, only a restricted range of self schemas are activated (e.g., Deci & Ryan,1985& Kuhl, 2000). Accordingly, these suppressed feelings or thoughts are associated with few self schemas. In the future, few retrieval cues can activate these memories. Indeed, only retrieval cues that manifest threat are likely to activate these memories and therefore foster the ironic rebound effect.

Social factors that override the ironic rebound effect

According to the concept of ironic rebound, secretive relationships should enhance attraction and commitment (cf., Lane & Wegner, 1994& Wegner, Lane, & Dimitri, 1994). In particular, individuals sometimes attempt to conceal their relationship from someone else: relatives, colleagues, or even friends, for a variety of reasons. To maintain this secret, in some contexts, they will need to suppress thoughts about this relationship. As a consequence, they will become more sensitive to these thoughts--which merely amplifies the salience and importance of this relationship.

Nevertheless, recent empirical evidence indicates that other mechanisms might override ironic rebound. That is, evidence indicates that commitment and wellbeing tend to decline when relationships are concealed (Lehmiller, 2009). In the study conducted by Lehmiller (2009), for example, participants answered a series of questions, constructed to assess the extent to which their relationship is concealed from anyone, such as "During the past week, my relationship with my partner was secret from someone". In addition, participants answered questions on the extent to which they feel committed to their relationship as well as the degree to which they feel their identity overlaps with their partner.

Secrecy about relationships was inversely related to commitment. The extent to which individuals feel they overlap with their partner, as defined by the self expansion model, mediated this association (Lehmiller, 2009).

Conceivably, when relationships are concealed, the partners often tend to conceptualize themselves as independent of each other. That is, they are less inclined to refer to each other as "we" and attempt to prevent inadvertent disclosure of their relationship. Because they are conceptualized as two independent individuals, they feel less committed to their communion or relationship.

In a second study, Lehmiller (2009) showed that secrecy about relationships does not only curb commitment but also evokes negative emotions about this relationship. That is, opportunities to enjoy their relationship are limited, and hence they are more inclined to experience negative emotions, which translates into a diminution in self esteem and health. In short, because of ironic rebound, secrecy might initially foster intense emotions in relationships. Over time, however, the difficulties this secrecy evoke seem to impair the formation of solid relationships.

Self determination

When individuals feel compelled rather than autonomous, ironic rebound tends to be pronounced. In contrast, when individuals feel autonomous-that is, if they feel they have chosen some course of action-ironic rebound may vanish (Legault, Gutsell, & Inzlicht, 2011).

For example, in one study, conducted by Legault, Gutsell, and Inzlicht (2011), to evoke a sense of compulsion with social norms, participants were told they should comply with the norms against prejudice. To evoke a sense of autonomy, other participants were informed about why unprejudiced attitudes are worthwhile rather than told to comply with social norms. Finally, in a control condition, participants received neither of these messages. Next, participants completed a questionnaire that assesses prejudice towards another race.

Relative to the control group, if participants were told to comply with norms against prejudice, they actually reported more prejudice. In contrast, if participants were informed about why unprejudiced attitudes are worthwhile, they reported less prejudice. An autonomous motivation, but not a controlled motivation (see self determination theory), thus diminished prejudice.

The second study was similar, apart from two key changes. First, although all participants received the same message about prejudice, some individuals were exposed to words that prime a controlled motivation, whereas other individuals were exposed to words that prime an autonomous motivation. Second, an implicit measure of prejudice, the implicit association test, was utilized. Again, an autonomous motivation, but not a controlled motivation, reduced prejudice. Presumably, a controlled motivation might provoke the need in individuals to assert their independence and thus reject messages (cf., psychological reactance).


The literature on ironic rebound indicates that deliberate suppression is often ineffective: Undesirable thoughts or feelings that are suppressed intentionally are frequently amplified later. In contrast, repression--a concept that is slightly distinct from suppression--might not be as detrimental, at least in specific circumstances (Coifman, Bonanno, Ray, & Gross, 2007).

The term repression is sometimes reserved to describe a particular combination of tendencies. Specifically, some people report limited levels of trait anxiety. For example, on explicit measures, they depict themselves as calm and composed in stressful circumstances. Nevertheless, when their self esteem is threatened--for instance, when they remember failures or receive criticisms--they exhibit physiological signs of pronounced anxiety. Their heart rate becomes especially fast, and their sweat is profuse, as gauged by the galvanic skin response.

When individuals maintain they are not anxious, but exhibit physiological indices of acute stress when threatened, they are assumed to exhibit repression. These individuals, arguably, may have learnt to distract themselves from their anxieties, seamlessly and effectively. That is, this capacity to distract themselves from concerns may become automatic, and thus unconscious, over time. These individuals may not need to suppress their anxieties consciously, curbing ironic rebound.

Coifman, Bonanno, Ray, and Gross (2007) partly confirmed this possibility. That is, this study showed that repression enhances the capacity of individuals to cope and experience positive emotions months after the death of a spouse. This repression, however, does not seem to be conscious& that is, repression is not related to self report measures of avoidance.

Practical implications


Individuals who experience depression anxiety should be dissuaded from striving to suppress or conceal these emotions. They should be informed that anxiety, and dejection are actually helpful in some settings. Anxiety, for instance, enhances the capacity of individuals to identify or anticipate problems. Dejection enables individuals to adjust their goals and plans.

Nevertheless, individuals often need to suppress a particular concern, doubt, or impulse. They might not want to focus their attention on their anxiety or their hunger, for example. To fulfil this goal, they should first consider two or three of their unique strengths--attributes or achievements of which they are proud. They should undertake this exercise immediately after they attempt to suppress their concerns, doubts, or impulses.


In organizations, employees should always be encouraged to express conflicting opinions. Conflicting opinions that are not expressed, but inhibited, can escalate, creating frustration, resentment, and even subversion.


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