A fascinating new study on the power of love vs. the allure of sex
You meet someone new and attractive. The eye looks and the mind wanders. Temptation strikes, although you don’t succumb to it in the moment. Nonetheless you find your thoughts keep returning to the encounter, to that attractive person, and to the possibility for romance, sex, or a relationship. When the mind wanders, it often follows a path to love, romance, and sex. If you’re currently unattached, such thoughts can be wonderful. Infatuation is a seductive emotional experience. Who knows where it will lead?
But if you’re already in a committed and happy relationship, you may not want those thoughts. You may not want to be distracted by a handsome or pretty new face. What can you do to remain focused on, and committed to, your current relationship?
How can you stop those thoughts about the wrong person?
Just telling yourself to stop thinking about that person doesn’t help. Daniel Wegner and his colleagues have shown that attempted thought suppression actually has the opposite effect—you end up experiencing more of the thoughts you tried to suppress. In a classic study, Wegner and colleagues asked people to not think about a white bear. Trying to suppress thoughts of white bears, though, just led to more thoughts of white bears—a rebound effect. Thought suppression and rebound effects appear for all types of thoughts, including those about people you find attractive. Trying to suppress such thoughts can even lead that person to appear in your dreams (Wegner, Wenzlaff, & Kozak, 2004; and see my blog on Inception, the Science of Creating Dreams). And trying to not think about sex isn’t very effective, either. Those thoughts not only rebound into awareness but they have physiological effects as well—your palms get sweaty when you try to avoid sex thoughts (Wegner, Shortt, Blake, & Page, 1990).
So here you are: You’ve met someone new, and now you’re thinking about that person, maybe even having daydreams and seeing that person in your dreams at night. The problem: You already have a partner you love and care about. You try to stop thinking about the attractive new person, but thought suppression doesn’t work.
How do you stop that person from constantly appearing in your thoughts?
Instead of suppressing your thoughts, try changing their focus instead. The best advice is to actively focus your thoughts in a different direction—but the nature of those alternative thoughts is crucial. Gonzaga and colleagues have investigated various ways to stop thinking about an attractive new person (Gonzaga, Haselton, Smurda, Davies, & Poore, 2008). First they gave people in relationships someone attractive to think about: They presented six pictures of attractive people and asked participants choose the one they thought was most attractive. While looking at that picture, the participants wrote about why the person was attractive and what the perfect first meeting with that person would be like. By using the writing task, the researchers made sure that people were thinking about that person and imagining interacting with him or her. Haven’t we all had similar daydreams? You remember how attractive, charming, and pleasant a new person was. Where would you go? What would you do together? You imagine going out with that person for the first time.
Now stop. Stop thinking about that person.
Of course, we know that telling yourself to stop doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the experiment, either: Some people were simply asked to stop thinking about the attractive person, but the thoughts continued into the next task—more so than if they hadn’t been told to stop the thoughts.
But when they tried instead to change the focus of their thoughts—and, specifically, to think about their current romantic partner—the results were very different. Some participants were asked to think about either the time they felt the most love or the most sexual desire for their current partner. And which was better at stopping thoughts about an attractive other person? Thoughts about love. In other words, love was more powerful than sex.
Try thinking about a time you felt love—that is, felt close, connected, and bonded to your current romantic partner. In the experiment, thinking of one's current partner in terms of love substantially reduced thoughts of someone else. Thinking of sexual attraction for a current partner wasn’t nearly as effective.
Gonzaga and colleagues argued that this is the whole point of feeling love. Being in a strong, committed relationship has lots of benefits for people: Love is the emotion that keeps you coming home to the same person every night for years. Thinking of love for one's current partner did more than just drive thoughts of that attractive other person from people's heads. Thinking of love actually diminished the memory of that other person. People who thought of love remembered fewer of the attractive features of that other person than other participants did.
If you want to stop thinking about someone new, if you want to stay committed to your current partner, if you want to diminish your memory for an attractive new person, and if you want to remove the temptation, the approach is simple: Think about your current partner. But the key is to think about a time when you felt love for him or her, because love is the power that can clear the mind, and keep people together.