To Clear Negative Thoughts, Physically Throw Them Away: Study

12/02/2012 10:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2013

Bothered by negative thoughts? Clearing your mind of them could be as simple as writing them down and physically throwing them away, according to a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science.

"At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works -- by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts," study researcher Richard Petty, of Ohio State University, said in a statement. "Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect."

Petty conducted the study along with Spanish researchers from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. The study included several experiments, the first of which included 83 high-schoolers in Spain who were given three minutes to write their negative or positive thoughts about their own body image.

After writing down these thoughts, all of them were asked to read them back over and think about them. Half of them were then asked to throw away those written thoughts in the trash, while the others were not instructed to throw away their thoughts and were instead asked to proof-read what they had written. Then, researchers had the study participants rate their attitudes on their own body image on a scale -- for example, if they liked or disliked their bodies, thought they were attractive or unattractive, etc.

Researchers found that for the students who were not asked to throw away their written thoughts on their self-body image, what they had written down seemed to have an effect on how they rated their body image afterward. For example, someone who wrote down a lot of positive thoughts about themselves were likelier to rate themselves higher on the body image scale.

However, for the students who were asked to throw away their written thoughts, what they wrote down didn't seem to have any effect on how they rated themselves afterward.

In another experiment, researchers had 78 college students in Spain type on a computer what they were thinking about, and save it in a file. Some of the study participants were then asked to drag that file into the computer's recycling bin; others were instructed to just drag the file to a storage disk. Some of them were also asked to just imagine that the file was moved to the recycling bin.

The researchers found that those who actually dragged the file to the recycling bin were less affected by the thoughts they'd typed out, compared with the ones who just saved to them another disk, or those who just imagined moving them to the recycling bin.

"Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone -- you can regenerate them," Petty said in the statement. "But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them."

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