The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

Imagine you have just taken part in a 360º feedback process and become aware that your references to “the girls down in sales” are reducing your credibility and degrading the level of trust within your team. With this feedback in hand, your goal is to stop using sexist language; however what should you be thinking about when in order to make this change? The answer will perhaps seem obvious to those of you who use Appreciative Inquiry in your practice: don’t think about what you want to do less of, instead find what’s working well and do more of it. The late Daniel Wegner’s theory of the ironic processes of mental control is one attempt to explain why trying to stop doing something can be so difficult:

“Humans are thwarted not just by a frequent inability to think, want, or feel what they desire but by the all-too-common discovery that their efforts to control these things go beyond failure to produce effects diametrically opposed to their original intent…It is not just that we cannot sleep, for instance, or that we cannot stop thinking about food when on a diet; the problem is that the more we want to sleep or to banish food thoughts the more we fail. We stay awake worrying that we cannot sleep, and we spend all day mentally in the refrigerator when we are hoping to diet. The agony of mental control is this oppositional quality that always seems to haunt attempts to direct our minds.”
Wegner, 1994 p. 34

“When capacity is reduced for some reason (such as distraction, cognitive load, stress, time pressure, and so on), however, the intended control does not merely de- cline to some uncontrolled baseline or zero level. Rather, mental control exerted during mental load will often produce ironic effects, resulting in mental states that go beyond “no change” to become the opposite of what is desired. Desired happiness becomes sadness, desired relaxation becomes anxiety, desired interest becomes boredom, desired love becomes hate, and so on.” [italics added]
Wegner, 1994 p.35

Knowing that your word choices have offended others seems very likely to be a condition which creates stress. In addition, the workplace is liable to create significant cognitive load and involve serious time pressure and frequent distractions. This is a recipe for an ironic or counterintentional effect: you plan to avoid terms like “girls” and with all of the other mental activity you have to juggle, this plan actually increases the frequency with which you use such terms. As I alluded to above, the existence of ironic processes of mental control suggests that if you want to stop doing one thing, you need to think about what other thing(s) you do want to do, instead of thinking about the thing that you don’t want to do.

Thus, in the example above, the best approach after learning that comments like “the girls down in sales” are undermining your effectiveness is to create a positive intention detailing what you want to do. If you are trying to coach yourself to form a new speech habit, you need to imagine and rehearse using inclusive and empowering language to refer to women, rather than expending energy thinking about how to prevent yourself making the offending comment again. Indeed, doing the latter, according to the research behind Wegner’s theory, has a good chance of producing the opposite outcome to that which you had hoped to achieve. In other words, to leave the ironic to the stand-up comedians, it is almost certain to be more helpful to devise ways to create new habits instead of focusing on breaking the bad ones.


Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

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