Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SWAG: Thoughts as Physical Objects

Ideas as Objects (Source)
Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week's seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

We typically think of thoughts as mental constructs without physical properties. And yet, it is remarkably common to use physical metaphors when dealing with these mental constructs. For instance, to say that you "cooked up" an idea is to suggest that ideas may have physical properties. With this logic, it is possible that engaging in physical acts with our thoughts might actually change their influence on our attitudes. A recent article that we read in SWAG tested this prediction.

In the research, Brinol and colleagues (2013) predicted that the act of throwing away a piece of paper with a thought might render that particular thought with less meaning (i.e., because it's trash) and therefore reduce the influence of the thought on one's own attitudes. Two studies were conducted to test this hypothesis [Actually three studies, but one was reported in the General Discussion as a "bonus study." For brevity, I've left out the details from this bonus round. That's super weird by the way!]. 

In the first study, participants were high school students who wrote down a list of positive or negative thoughts about their body on a piece of paper. Participants were then either assigned to throw away the idea in the trash or to check it for spelling errors. Participants attitudes about their body were then assessed. Participants who wrote about positive things about their body had more positive attitudes after checking the article for spelling relative to when they threw away the thought in the trash. Throwing away the negative thoughts versus checking them for spelling showed no differences in attitudes.

In the second study, participants were asked to read about a Mediterranean diet (I'm not sure what this diet consists of, but the description suggests that it involves drinking olive oil and eating "legumes"). Participants were then assigned to write positive or negative thoughts about the diet on a piece of paper and then were assigned to three conditions: In the first, participants threw away the thought. In the second, participants folded the corners of the paper. In the third, participants folded the thought and placed it in their wallet. This latter condition was expected to influence judgments because keeping a thought/object suggests its importance and value. Results confirmed these expectations: Keeping the thought resulted in attitude change toward the diet consistent with the original thought (i.e., positive thoughts increased positive attitudes about the diet). In contrast, throwing away the thought led to inconsistent attitudes about the diet (i.e., throwing away positive thoughts about the diet increased negative attitudes toward the diet).

Overall, the results show some evidence suggesting that the meaning of thoughts, when represented in the physical space, can be changed based on the physical acts we engage in. The results did have some inconsistency that we discussed in SWAG. For instance, throwing away negative thoughts about body image did not improve body image attitudes in Study 1. It was puzzling that Brinol and colleagues never mentioned this peculiarity of the results in the paper (this probably led to the largely inaccurate press release accompanying the paper).

We did reach some consensus about the studies. Specifically, SWAG thought that the neatest aspect of this research is that it provides some experimental evidence suggesting that throwing objects away can be a cathartic experience--objects in the trash are rendered less meaningful. I'm sure that many people throw out objects because the objects remind them of something unpleasant (e.g., after a break up, a person might throw out pictures of their ex).

We also agreed that Trader Joe's ginger snaps are delicious!

Do you throw out things to help you forget about them? Does it work for you?

Briñol P, Gascó M, Petty RE, & Horcajo J (2013). Treating thoughts as material objects can increase or decrease their impact on evaluation. Psychological science, 24 (1), 41-7 PMID: 23184587


  1. Michael - Glad to see your writing back up here! Maybe I missed one...I think of thoughts often is a physical construct but usually use the "weather pattern" construct. So negative thoughts/feelings are "storms" that can I can watch and observe as if from afar and once you know it's a storm...well then you know it will pass and it eases it's power over you

    1. Nice, I've never think of thoughts as weather, but I can see that's a great example of thoughts as objects. Thanks for reading!