Measuring Thought-Control Failure: Sensory Mechanisms and Individual Differences

Psychol Sci. 2019 Jun;30(6):811-821. doi: 10.1177/0956797619837204. Epub 2019 Apr 22.


The ability to control one's thoughts is crucial for attention, focus, ideation, and mental well-being. Although there is a long history of research into thought control, the inherent subjectivity of thoughts has made objective examination, and thus mechanistic understanding, difficult. Here, we report a novel method to objectively investigate thought-control success and failure by measuring the sensory strength of visual thoughts using binocular rivalry, a perceptual illusion. Across five experiments (N = 67), we found that thought-control failure may occur because of the involuntary and antithetical formation of nonreportable sensory representations during attempts at thought suppression but not during thought substitution. Notably, thought control was worse in individuals with high levels of anxiety and schizotypy but more successful in mindful individuals. Overall, our study offers insight into the underlying mechanisms of thought control and suggests that individual differences play an important role in the ability to control thoughts.

Keywords: binocular rivalry; mental imagery; mindfulness; open data; thought substitution; thought suppression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Male
  • Sensation
  • Vision Disparity*
  • Vision, Binocular*
  • Young Adult