Don't read this



Sorry, but you seem to be having a problem. I did entitle this article, ‘Don’t Read This’ so please would you read something else?

This article is about Suggestion – specifically about what we call Negative Suggestion such as: ‘You will not smoke any more’.  

You’re not still reading this are you? What have I got to do to persuade you that I don’t want you to read this?

Many therapists and researchers claim that the subconscious cannot process negatives. Others doubt this though; they ask why, if the subconscious does fail in this way, do Negative Suggestions seem to work with some clients? They also suggest that there is no evidence to support the claim.  

Look, I have asked you, haven’t I? Please, stop reading this.

Let’s begin by addressing the first point – that Negative Suggestion sometimes seems to work. We cannot say that a treatment works simply because a client makes the desired progress. After all, it’s quite possible for some clients, particularly those who are highly motivated, to get better irrespective of what we do. We are only ever merely helping the client, so success is always, at least in part, attributable to his/her efforts and at times may be solely down to him or her. A research study that compares the effects of Positive Suggestion with Negative Suggestion would be the only way that we could properly analyse this.  

Vote for Bob
Now let’s address that second point: Where is the evidence that the subconscious is unable to process a negative? Well, there are some pretty convincing studies to support this idea. Lieberman and Arndt (2000) carried out one study in which they mocked-up an election. Volunteers were asked to give their impressions of (non-existent) political candidates, and to base their opinions on invented news headlines. Not surprisingly, a headline which read:  

‘Bob Talbert associated with fraudulent charity’

badly damaged his reputation with these volunteer ‘electors’. But amazingly, when other volunteers were shown the following headline it had a similar impact:  

‘Is Bob Talbert associated with fraudulent charity?’

Such a response is extraordinary. Since the headline does not make any accusation, it merely asks a question, the volunteers were being influenced in a way that made no sense. How to explain this? It seems that the mind focuses on the candidate’s name, and then on the words ‘fraudulent charity’ but shows little or no recognition that no accusation is being made. We feel that if the question is being asked then there must be a valid reason for it -  a shocking thing when you consider how someone in court will probably be judged in the same way.

But at least the following headline will reassure the ‘electors’, and increase their willingness to vote for Bob Talbert... or will it?  

‘Bob Talbert not linked with fraudulent charity’

This clearly would be a headline that Bob would welcome if he had been accused of links with a fraudulent charity. Or would he? Because this last headline was also seen, like the others, as incriminating! Think of this for a moment... something positive has been said about Bob - and yet people will think less of him because of it!

So some of these people were given a headline that was negative about Bob, some had a neutral one, and others had a positive one. The first two headlines had the same impact, and even the last (positive) one damaged him.

So why would the good news headline about Bob make us think less of him? Well, again our mind notices his name, it also notices ‘fraudulent charity’ and it connects the two; but somehow the mind does not allow the word ‘not’ to do its job. Although we have seen it consciously, we have not accepted it – exactly the claim made by many therapists and many researchers about how we respond to Negative Suggestions.  
Please stop reading this.

Why do you keep thinking of a white bear?

There are other studies that also support this idea. You might want to try for yourself the following test carried out in one study. Participants were simply asked not to think of a white bear. They were told to note down how often they did think of it. Try it now for yourself. Sit quietly for five minutes and try as hard as you can to not think of a white bear.

The participants thought of a white bear roughly every minute – in spite of their best efforts. We can confidently state that they probably hadn’t had one thought about a white bear for some time - until then.

Another study showed that when under pressure golfers who were encouraged not to overshoot would do it more. Likewise, footballers when taking a penalty who were urged not to aim for one particular spot found themselves looking at the spot more often than usual.   Even a comedy show illustrated the same problem – when some German guests arrive Basil Fawlty is determined not to mention the war, yet a short while later he is saying how he wants ‘to welcome your war – er, your war – YOU ALL - to Fawlty Towers.’ He then asks them if they ‘would like to eat first or have a drink before the war – sorry, sorry, bad leg - shrapnel from the war – KOREAN war.’ In fact, the harder he tries the worse it gets. And this ties in with research that suggests the greater our efforts to avoid thinking or doing something the more likely we are to fail.    

But why?

How does this happen, though? It seems that in everyday life when we are intending to do something our subconscious first imagines the process that we will go through, and this prepares us for action. Therefore if we try not to mention the war, we will be subconsciously imagining our saying it and then tell ourselves not to, but this in turn will prepare us for that action, thereby increasing the chances that we do. Clearly negatives can lead to the very thing we are trying to avoid.

The evidence suggests that negative words like ‘no’ ‘not’ ‘cease’ ‘avoid’ etc often don’t seem to get the response we expect them to: our mind may even in some circumstances disregard them completely. If that is the case, we do best as therapists to minimise the use of Hypnotic Suggestions that contain negatives, thereby avoiding potential problems.

Perhaps these studies and observations are insufficient to persuade you to avoid using Negative Suggestions. I, however, am convinced that people often ignore negatives - just as you did with my request that you stop reading this.




Some popular articles:


Learning techniques for students

A successful practice - and light bulbs  

Developing self-compassion - a way out of low self-esteem

Alan Davidson:

UK:  01202 423111   (Outside UK: 44 1202 423111)