Despite these efforts, unwanted thoughts sometimes persist. People can try to ignore these thoughts, negate them, suppress them, correct for them, or think about something else, but unfortunately, these mental activities can be difficult to implement and do not always work in the intended ways (Wegner & Erber, 1992). For example, attempts to negate or suppress stereotypes and prejudice can backfire and produce an increase in unwanted thoughts (e.g., Gawronski, Deutsch, Mbirkou, Seibt, & Strack, 2008; Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Wheeler, 1996; Monteith, Sherman, & Devine, 1998). Also, attempts at correction for unwanted thoughts can lead to biases in the opposite direction (e.g., Martin, 1986; Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Strack & Mussweiler, 2001; Wegener & Petty, 1997; Wilson & Brekke, 1994).
Instead of engaging in these effortful mental activities that do not invariably produce the desired result, what if people could just throw their unwanted thoughts in the garbage as they do unwanted objects? But can people discard their thoughts as easily as they dispose of objects? Dualist philosopher René Descartes held that the mind is a nonphysical substance, and thus, mental phenomena are also nonphysical (see Cottingham, 1999). According to this classic Western notion of dualism, a thought cannot literally be thrown into the garbage, because it does not have a material or physical nature.
However, people might still be able to treat their thoughts as physical objects. If so, they could break them into pieces, destroy them, and throw them away just as they do physical objects. There are two reasons that this possibility may be plausible. First, psychologists have treated thoughts metaphorically as physical objects in order to improve their understanding of cognitive processes.
For instance, Abelson’s (1986) theoretical perspective on the nature of beliefs treats beliefs as “possessions.” Models of organizational behavior refer to the possibility of “owning” immaterial goods, such as organizational knowledge (e.g., Van Dyne & Pierce, 2004). Of course, the feeling of ownership can be applied to all kinds of mental constructs, including scientific ideas and artistic creations (e.g., Heider, 1958). Second, thoughts are also treated like physical objects in nonpsychological domains. For example, language is replete with metaphors linking thoughts and physicality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Thus, people talk about having, acquiring, borrowing, holding, losing, and abandoning their thoughts.
In sum, it may be reasonable to suggest that thoughts can be understood and treated as if they were physical objects. What remains to be examined is the extent to which researchers can move from metaphorical analogies of thought to a more literal view of thoughts as physical objects. In the present work, we examined the impact of treating thoughts as tangible objects in the domain of attitudes.