Let It Go—The Power of Thought Stopping

How fixed are our traits? Can we stay true to our authentic selves without becoming locked into rigid behavior? Professor and speaker Brian Little explores these questions in his book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

Brian is an unapologetic introvert and witty, animated lecturer, whose Free Trait Theory posits that we are as driven by spontaneous, “out of character” moments as we are by innate and learned traits.

The good news is that you have more control over hostile, stressful thoughts and emotions than you think. Techniques like thought-stopping, which Brian describes in detail below, can help you present your best self and lead to your most collaborative efforts—even if sometimes accompanied with unfortunate vocalizations. Give it a try!

Preventing hostile takeovers

I had been carrying out research on personality and health for a few years when I had the opportunity to attend grand rounds at a large psychiatric hospital, where the demonstration for that month was about “thought stopping” for reducing hostile behavior. There was a group of 15 of us in all manner of dress, professional background, and levels of hostility.

The demonstrator asked us to close our eyes and imagine, for about three minutes, a scene that made us frustrated and at least somewhat hostile. I conjured up a vision of…idiot drivers…who seemed to turn up occasionally on my drive to the university.

I had been deeply concentrating on this image and building up a nice wad of anger when the demonstrator’s voice screamed through the microphone: STOP!!! We all jumped and stopped simultaneously. Our instructor then asked how many of us were still thinking about the event that made us hostile. None of us were. In my case, the STOP interruption had been sufficiently intrusive to totally divert me away from thoughts of road rage and digital gestures.

The next step in our demonstration was to show how we could incorporate this “cue word”—STOP—whenever we wished to be diverted from a course of thinking that was creating hostility, anxiety, or any other undesirable emotion.

It would have been helpful to have had the demonstrator permanently attached to us to yell appropriately when he thought we were experiencing unpleasant emotions—sort of a Global Psychiatric Screamer, or GPS—but that seemed impracticable.

So we were trained to interrupt ourselves with the word stop when we knew we were in a situation in which hostility or anxiety was about to accelerate. At first, we did it out loud, but we quickly learned to internalize the STOP so that only we were aware of the interruption signal.

Over the next few weeks, I found several occasions during which I was able to interrupt an unwanted state of mind by simply intoning stop sharply but silently. I also found it was more effective if I quickly blinked my eyes once while saying it to myself.

It turned out that within a week of sitting through the grand rounds demonstration I had an occasion to use the thought-stopping technique. My dean had asked me to tackle a problem of accountability in evaluating the university’s courses of instruction. The logic was that the government was going to impose its own process of figuring out how well universities carried out their tasks, so preempting them by developing our own standards would be highly desirable.

This meant I would need to visit each department in the university and brief them on our system of self-accountability. I knew that universities were notoriously resistant to change and that changing fundamental aspects of the academy was like moving a cemetery. So when asked to do this, I said I would have preferred to have open rectal surgery without an anesthetic, to which the dean responded, “That can also be arranged, Professor Little.”

The night before my first briefing, I received an email that confirmed my expectation of trouble ahead. The email was in response to a report I had written outlining some procedures for assessing accountability, and a very senior professor in the economics department expressed his concern directly: “I am appalled by your report. I will see you at the meeting tomorrow. Be prepared to fight.”

When I went to bed a few minutes later, I found myself stressed out by this unexpected and not overly collegial email. My wife asked me whether I was tense—perhaps because I was standing up in bed. I told her what was up, and she suggested I practice what I had recently learned about thought-stopping techniques.

We agreed I needed a keyword that would allow me to stave off the stress likely to emerge as an out-of-control, Type A macroeconomist savaged me. She suggested I just make a subvocal quacking sound to evoke the image of water rolling off a duck’s back. I thought it was a brilliant suggestion and drove myself to the university the next morning with a new honking sound in my behavioral repertoire.

When I got up to defend my position at the meeting, my combatant rose simultaneously, and we stared at each other. I silently quacked, all sense of anxiety dissipated, and I calmly and solicitously said that Professor X had something very important to say. The economist, somewhat startled, quietly made his point and sat down. Throughout the rest of the meeting, I managed to defend a highly controversial policy with something very close to aplomb, thanks to my subvocal quacking.  

But toward the end of the session, a psychologist and a political scientist were debating the issues, and I intervened to clarify some obscurities in the political scientist’s remarks. He wheeled around, glared at me, and shouted, “Professor Little, when I want my position clarified I’ll ASK TO HAVE IT CLARIFIED!”

It took me aback, but my newly acquired thought-stopping skill kicked in. To my considerable embarrassment, however, what I thought was a subvocal sound clearly passed the threshold into a highly vocal one. I let out a very loud QUACK.

The political scientist, looking puzzled, asked, “Brian, did you just quack?” I then performed an extrication procedure that was pretty pathetic. I pretended that I had just coughed and repeated it four times with a distinctly quacking sound accompanying it. This was not my finest moment.

The moral of this story is that one can handle hostility, anxiety, and other responses to stress in the short term through techniques cognitive behavior therapists use, like thought stopping or progressive relaxation. But sometimes, attempts to suppress a response can backfire.

Want to know more? You can read about Free Trait Theory in Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian Little, Ph.D., Copyright © 2014, Brian Little. Published by PublicAffairs.

Dr. Brian Little is an internationally acclaimed scholar and speaker in the field of personality and motivational psychology. Professor Little is a Fellow of the Well-Being Institute and Director of the Social Ecology Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University. He has taught at McGill, Oxford, and Harvard, where he was elected as a “Favorite Professor” by the graduating classes of Harvard for three consecutive years. Dividing his time between Canada and the UK, Brian is also a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa.