FIFO Life Part 13: The White Bear Effect

FIFO Focus’ Dr John Forbes  joins Big Al as part of the REDFM series FIFO Life.

In part 13, John talks about the concept of the “white bear effect” and how it can impact on our ability to change.

There are times when we need to make a change in life – hopefully, for the better! It’s often easier said than done, though. Very often, when we don’t achieve the change we’re after it’s because we fall into a trap called “The White Bear Effect”.

What’s the White Bear Effect?

The White Bear Effect is best understood by experiencing it. To experience it, I need to give you an order, and you need to agree to obey me immediately – without question. Don’t worry, though – there’s nothing to worry about!


Here’s the order:

“Do ‘not’ think of a white bear.”

OK, so now your head’s full of white bears, isn’t it? At the very least, you would have had a white bear pop into your mind!

The thing is, the more people try to ‘not’ do something, the stronger it becomes. So the more people ‘try’ to not drink, the more they’re going to want to drink. The more people ‘try’ to not smoke, the more they’re going to want to smoke. That’s the wall that you probably keep running up really hard against when you try to make a change.

For those of you who ride motorcycles, you’ve probably heard of ‘target fixation’. Essentially, whatever you look at, you’ll hit. The bike will just follow wherever your head is looking. It’s the same thing when we’re trying to make a change. Whatever you ‘look’ at, you’ll hit – because you have to keep whatever it is that you don’t want to do in your head as a frame of reference. So, it becomes stronger because you’re practising thinking about cigarettes, alcohol, or whatever else you’re trying to change. So, what we need to do is have a better alternative. Rather than focusing on what we don’t want to do, and unfortunately making that stronger, we need to focus on what we do want to do.

Negative and Positive Goals

There are two other aspects of change in psychology called ‘repelling and attracting goals’ or ‘negative and positive goals’. Most people focus on repelling or negative goals. They’re saying, “Wherever I am in life, I don’t want to be here.” Initially, that’s pretty easy to achieve, and they’re going to be fairly happy with that, just because they’re ‘not’ where they were anymore. But now they’re left in a position where they may not be drinking as much, they might be smoking less, but they’re left in a sort of neutral zone.

So, what we need is to figure out the attracting goals or positive goals. You need to figure out where you ‘do’ want to be. Most people don’t want to be ‘not a smoker’, for example. That’s not how you define yourself. What you want is more money, to be healthier, to be able to run around after the kids, and all those sorts of things. They’re all the things that you ‘do’ want, and they’re the things that you’re going to be attracted to. If you can figure out what they are, they’re what’s called ‘self-sustaining’.

As you do them, you’re going to experience the benefits of them. You’ll enjoy them – and you can reward yourself on the way through- and you will keep doing them because of that. You’re practising what you want to be, not what you don’t want to be – and you’ll get better at that!

The content in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend consulting with a registered health practitioner or contacting us for more tailored support.

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