It’s a good thing you can’t copyright titles, because I had to steal this one. It’s just too good. The play on Poe refers to a clever study by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner designed to emulate a phenomenon well-known to golfers—the tendency to miss easy putts when the pressure is on. In the study, subjects were told to hold a plumber’s pendulum—a string with a pointed weight on the bottom of it—and try NOT to move it in any direction. Wegner found that the greater the pressure to get it right, the more the string moved. The more you try not to do something, or tell yourself not to do something, the researchers hypothesized, the more likely you are to do it.
Eventually, after a series of similar experiments this notion became known as the “ironic effect,” because giving clever names to common phenomena makes you famous, helps you get published and increases your chances for tenure and income, especially after you do a TED talk. Perhaps because it wasn’t catchy enough, Wegner renamed the phenomenon the “white bear (or polar bear) problem” after reading Dostoevsky during his summer break. Fyodor wrote: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Ironic processes have been proposed to arise as a result of the unconscious (automatic) component of thinking being heightened during periods of stress, creating an overload which then interferes (through “hyper-accessibility”) with conscious thought, resulting in less focus and poorer performance. The unconscious monitor is thinking “If I miss this putt I’ll lose the tournament, be ashamed, and my mother will have to tell her friends in the nursing home.” The stress created by TV cameras, high stakes, and Tiger Woods teeing off behind you can be intense, thrusting the unconscious monitor into consciousness, thus interfering with the conscious thought—“softly about six inches to the left,” thus distracting the golfer enough to impair concentration and performance.
Increase the pressure to do something right and we are more likely to do it wrong. But that principle doesn’t work all the time. Performance under pressure works like an inverted U-shaped curve, in which too little pressure has no effect on performance, and too much pressure really screws us up. The trick is to find that middle way, in which there is just enough pressure to push us toward our best performance.
When I was a young teenager, there was an Orthodox synagogue located down the street from where I lived called the “Sea Breeze Synagogue.” The old wooden building was built close to the turn of the last century, and badly in need of repair, but rather than tear it down they decided to build a new building in the empty lot next door. There was a steel girder, about a foot wide, spanning the length of the empty hole where the foundation and basement was to be, maybe 25 feet long. The width of the girder was certainly large enough to walk across without fear. But the fact that it was suspended over a large hole, large enough to do serious damage should one fall into it, made the walk from one end to another too daunting. I knew some kids who did it, or said they did, but I wasn’t going to be one of them.
It was an easy task, but the context “spoke to me” and made it out of the question. If I simply were able to put it out of my mind it would have been a sea-breeze. But instead, had I tried it, the knowledge that if I fell I would likely not survive or be paralyzed for life would overtake my focus and I would, as it were, be more likely to miss the putt.
Psychologists recommend distraction as a chief strategy for dealing with such distractions. In other words, think about something else while doing the thing you already know how to do well, and your newly conscious thought will serve as the antidote to the venomous voices in your head. While it seems counter-intuitive that thinking about how to best prune roses while walking across a tightrope will increase the likelihood of making it across without splattering one’s viscera on the floor of the arena below, to then be devoured by the abused lion while the lion-tamer is distracted by the malfunctioning of his assistant’s wardrobe, who in turn might be distracted by the thud of your own body having fallen three feet from her, I am told by psychologists more knowledgeable than I that indeed this is a good way of coping with the white bear problem.
My white bears often overwhelm me, and distraction never quite does it for me. I try, for sure, but sometimes I just have to give in to the white bears. Maybe that’s why I could never play golf.