Back when I was in eighth grade, I was lucky enough to have a pretty great teacher who happened to have some pretty interesting teaching techniques. For one, there was the dressing up like a crazy football freak for the annual Ohio State/Michigan game and the annual “Book Bowl”. She also offered the opportunity to grab the children’s book classic “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and take it in the hallway for some alone time at any given instant, no questions asked. Finally, when someone threw out an insult, she suggested writing it down on paper, taking it over to the giant aluminum trash can, throwing it in while shouting “that’s garbage!” and slamming the lid down.
She might have been on to something.
According to recent research from the Ohio State University, physically throwing away thoughts written on paper can have an actual psychological effect. In a series of experiments, researchers asked participants to write down their thoughts about either their own body image or the Mediterranean diet. Some were then told to throw their thoughts away while others were asked to tuck them away in their pockets.
Naturally, a few minutes later, those who wrote positive thoughts answered a questionnaire on their topic positively, while those who wrote negative things were negative. But what they did with their thoughts on paper did have an impact. Those that kept their thoughts were much more polarized on their survey, while those who discarded them trended more towards the middle of the road.
In a follow-up, more students were asked to type their thoughts about their body image and then save the word document, drag it to the recycling bin, or simply imagine doing one of the two. Again, those who actually either saved or discarded their thoughts were affected by those actions. However, those who simply imagined doing so were not.
I’m not saying that these are groundbreaking results or that the experiments are even all that conclusive. The sampling size was a tad small – 83, 284 and 78 participants for the three studies – and the entire setup is a little suspect. For instance, if I were in the study I’d have a pretty good idea what they were trying to get at even if they told me differently.
But that’s not to say the effect, even if it is a tiny one, isn’t real. And in the end, even small little ways to help can have an impact.
Maybe we all ought to take a child’s advice from time to time and physically throw out those unwanted thoughts.
The paper “Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation” was published online in the journal Psychological Science by co-authors Richard Petty, professor of psychology at the Ohio State University, and Pablo Briñol, Margarita Gascó and Javier Horcajo, all of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.