Is That a Thought in Your Pocket Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me?

There’s a treatment for phobias called ‘systematic desensitization’. If you had arachnophobia and I placed a spider on your arm, you would react ‘badly’. Perhaps your heart rate would go up a little… you might have a tendency to move out of the way – away from the spider. The immediate and close proximity of a real spider is way too much to cope with. It is too real and too in your face. So, with systematic desentization you would start by thinking about a spider on the other side of the room. Once you’ve calmed down, you then imagine the spider a bit closer, then you might look at a photo of a spider at a distance, then closer. Then a real spider may be introduced on a distant table (in a box). Then nearer. Then out of the box (!) Slowly, slowly, over time, you become less sensitized to the idea and reality of a spider. Ultimately you can cope with someone placing a real spider on your arm.

An interesting aspect of this is that the whole process focuses on the concept of a spider. An imaginary spider, a picture of a spider, a real spider. Thoughts of a spider. They are bits of ‘spider’. some of it is more real, some more emotional, some of it has a greater tendency to get you moving. In other words, the abstract thought of a spider is not so powerful, but the real life, in your face, on your arm, spider is a very powerful stimulus to focus your mind and to drive you to action.
This works for positive motivation as well as negative: if you replace the spider with an ice-cream, then the more real you imagine the ice-cream, or the more photos of ice-creams you look at then the more likely you are to go out and buy one. The more tangible and real the thoughts, the more powerful is the motivation.

So now replace the spider, or ice-cream, with some important goal that you have set yourself. It could be exercising more. It could be working as part of a team to achieving a communal goal. The more real you can make it, the more likely it is that you will be moved to act towards it. If the goal is so close you can almost touch it, then you would almost certainly try to do so…

The researchers Brinol et al, (2013) recently provided an elegant demonstration of how you can manipulate the power of thoughts to have a greater or lesser impact upon you. In the first study, they asked participants to write down thoughts on a piece of paper. Half the participants then “were asked to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them into the trash can located in the room, because their thoughts did not have to remain with them.” (Page 42.) The other half (control group) kept the paper with their thoughts written on it. Later, when asked to make judgements, the group who threw away their thoughts were less influenced by those thoughts than the control group. So, the act of getting rid of a physical copy of thoughts seems to also get rid of them from your mind! Imagine the possibilities! Quick, write down all those worrying and negative thoughts and trash them all…

In the second study, the authors asked participants to “protect” their thoughts. After writing down the thoughts, participants folded the paper and put it into their wallet or purse. This protection led to an increase in the influence of those thoughts on later judgements.

So, throw away your thoughts and they influence you less, protect your thoughts and they influence you more! And when I say “throw away” or “protect” I am referring to a piece of paper that has a written version of your thoughts on it. But somehow, that written representation affects the way you think! This suggests that thoughts are like real objects – they have substance – and the way we treat them affects how they influence us.

It reflects an important way the brain processes stimuli and how that impacts on motivation. The brain is designed to interpret cues and stimuli from the outside world and then respond appropriately to them (spider, ice-cream, team goal). The more ‘real’ a stimulus is i.e. the closer, more vivid, more tangible, more ‘objectified’ that a stimulus is, the stronger the link to emotion and action systems. In other words, the greater chance of a motivated response. It also suggests that we can manipulate thoughts as we would manipulate objects – bring them closer, handle them, push them away, hide them, make them bigger or smaller. Critically, what we do to those thought objects has a big impact on how those thoughts then affect our motivation and behaviour.

If you are trying to be more healthy, then create objects that represent your goals (or the actions required to get those goals, or the benefits of achieving those goals). Protect those objects. Perhaps make them bigger, keep them close. They don’t have to be always visible. If you are a manager and are working with a team, if you want to motivate them, make their goals real, proximal and vivid. Make models, touch them, interact with them. Handle the objects as in the same way that you would handle your most prized possessions.

The more real your ideas are, the more real they will become.

– Dr John –


Briñol P, Gascó M, Petty RE and Horcajo J (2013) Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation. Psychological Science, 24: 41-47

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