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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 29-Jun-12


Friday 29-June-12

Avoidant instructions

There's a good way of getting people to think about a pink elephant, which is to tell them not to think about it. Obvious really, but we do this all the time. In sports, for example if you tell a runner not to raise their hands above the shoulder, then their thinking about this can make them actually do it. Or, alternatively, in desperation not to do it, they keep their hands too low, effectively over-compensating. Either way, they may not run their best are they are focusing on not doing something.

Telling people not to do something is called 'avoidant instructions' and its effects have been demonstrated in laboratory conditions.

Russell et al (). got subjects to trace an imaginary vertical straight line between two onscreen dots, with some subjects being told not to drift to the left of the line. The effect of this was that some people over-compensated, going well to the right instead. There was also another group who showed an 'ironic effect' in going to the left, just where they had been told not to go. 

Next, an additional distraction task (remembering a seven-digit number) was given to the subjects. The curious result was that those who overcompensated to the right now tended to the ironic effect of going to the left, while those who went more to the left now went more to the right. For a few, there was a third effect of actually making them more accurate.

The bottom line is that avoidant instructions can have a bad effect for many people in either overcompensation or ironic effect. Distraction can help but not much.

The learning point is simply to avoid avoidant instructions.

Russell, C., and Grealy, M. (2010). Avoidant instructions induce ironic and overcompensatory movement errors differently between and within individuals. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 9, 1671-1682

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