Ironic effects in memory

A study is reported which tested the ironic processing theory proposed by Wegner (1994). Two groups of participants were presented with a list of words using a tape recorder and headphones. At the same time as being presented with the list of words both groups were told to look at a booklet containing several pictures and asked to memorise them. One group were explicitly instructed to ignore the words presented using the tape recorder, the other group were not. In line with Wegner’s theory it was predicted that those participants who were instructed to ignore the words would in fact remember more of them. Analysis of the number of words correctly recognised by the two groups revealed that there was no significant difference between them. It was suggested that the similarity of the two tasks given to participants was responsible for the large variability in the number of words recognised by those in both groups.


It is quite common for individuals to find that they cannot control the amount they worry (see Eysenck, 1992). Often such individuals try desperately not to worry about something only to find themselves thinking even more about it than they would normally. Wegner (1994) has suggested that these individuals are the victims of ironic processes. Ironic effects occur when you are deliberately trying to do something, and find yourself doing completely the opposite, e.g. staying awake when you desperately want to sleep. They also occur when you are trying not to do something, which you inevitably end up doing, e.g. worrying when trying not to.

Ironic processes have been around for a long time, but an explanation for them has recently been proposed by Dan Wegner (1994). Wegner and his colleagues have identified certain conditions which appear to increase the likelihood of ironic effects occurring. Wegner (1994) has argued that when we deliberately try to do something or try not to do something, two mental processes are set in motion. The first of these, which Wegner calls the Operating Process, endeavours to create a state of mind whereby the desired effects are more likely to occur. It does this by searching for items that are consistent with the desired state of mind.

This process is a conscious process and requires effort on the part of the person seeking a desired behaviour. Alongside this operating process is a non-conscious process which looks out for failures to achieve the desired behaviour, this Wegner has called the Monitoring Process. Wegner argues that the very monitoring for such failures ensures that, under certain conditions, we are more likely to fail in our attempts to control our thoughts and behaviours. Wegner suggests failures in control are more likely when the Operating Process is weakened. He suggests that because the operating process is conscious, and because we have a limited capacity for conscious processing, that the operating process will be weakened when some other conscious processing task is required.

Wegner thus argues that we are more likely to fail in our attempts at control of our thoughts or behaviour when we are required to undertake some other conscious processing task. He has illustrated this in many studies. For example, Ansfield, Wegner and Bowser (1996) gave students a cassette to take home and play to themselves using a Walkman when they wanted to go to sleep. Half the students were told that they should try to go to sleep as quickly as possible, the others were simply told to sleep whenever they wanted to. Also, half of the participants in each of these groups were given calming music to listen to and half were given very rousing music. It was found that the rousing music, which Wegner equated with high mental load, only affected the sleep times of the people who were instructed to sleep as quickly as possible. Those participants who were instructed to go to sleep as quickly as possible and were given the rousing music took the longest to fall asleep.

In another demonstration of ironic effects, Wegner and Ansfield (1994) asked participants to hold a pendulum and instructed them to make sure that the pendulum did not swing in a particular direction. Half of the participants were given a high mental load task to carry out, that is to count backwards from 1000 in intervals of 7, the rest were given no mental load task. They found that there was much more movement in the forbidden direction for those in the high mental load condition than those in the no mental load condition.

These two studies confirm Wegner’s prediction that ironic effects will be more pronounced in situations when we have the distraction of a task with a high conscious mental load. Thus there have to be two general conditions for ironic effects to occur: first we have to initiate some sort of controlling behaviour, whether it be trying to control thoughts or our behaviour; and second we must have reduced conscious processing capacity for the Operating Process to use.

The following experiment is a direct test of the ironic processing theory suggested by Wegner and his colleagues. Much of the previous research on ‘ironic processes’ has investigated physical effects of such processes, however, the current study aims to investigate cognitive effects of ironic processes. The study will utilize a dual modality task to explore participants susceptibility to ironic effects. The basic idea is that participants are presented with two stimulus sources, one visual and one aural. One half of the participants are explicitly told to ignore one of the stimulus sources, i.e. the aural one, and to concentrate only on the visual source.

The remaining participants are simply told that the aural source of information will be there and not told to ignore it. The aural source of information will be a list of words presented using an audiocassette player and a set of headphones. To find out if there is a difference between the two groups in their ability to ignore this information they will be given a memory task. They will be given the list of words, along with some that they haven’t heard before and asked if they recognise any of the words as being on the list presented to them using the cassette player.

In such a task, if ironic processing occurs, it would be predicted that those participants who were told explicitly to ignore the taped words will recognise more of these words than those who were not told to ignore them. Method Participants There were 56 people who took part in the study. The mean age of the group was 22.22, range of 18 to 45. There were 45 females and 2 males (gender was not recorded for two of the participants). The participants were all 1st year undergraduate students studying psychology at The University of East London and participated as a part of a Research Methods course.


A word list was generated which contained 96 words (e.g. sweating, decorate, isolated, calm). This list was then divided into two sub-lists, List A and List B, each one containing 48 words. These two lists were matched as accurately as possible for word length and word frequency using the norms of Carol, Davis & Richman (1971). Each word list (A & B) was then randomised and recorded onto audiotape, one word every five seconds.

These lists were to be presented to participants in the encoding stage of the experiment. The lists were presented using a standard tape recorder with headphones. The full list of 96 words was also randomised and printed onto one sheet of A4 paper. These were the words that were used in the recognition task. The participants were simply asked to read through the 96 words and put a circle around all those words that they recognised as having been presented previously using the tape recorder. These instructions were printed on a separate sheet and attached to the word list.

A separate booklet was created which contained 24 pictures for the participants to look at during the encoding stage of the experiment. Eleven of the pictures were cartoons taken from a Far Side cartoon book (Larson, 1992). The remaining 13 pictures were black and white photographs taken from newspapers and magazines (see Appendix A for examples). The 24 pictures were put into a random order and presented in the booklet.


The study was conducted as a between participant, experimental design. The independent variable was whether or not the participants were instructed to ignore the taped words. The dependent variable was an adjusted measure of each participant’s recognition ability. Participants were randomly allocated to each of the two conditions and were presented with the words on the tape and in the recognition task in a fixed but random order. The recognition list was divided into two separate but equivalent word lists to be presented to the participants using the tape recorder. Half of the participants in each condition heard word list A and half heard word list B.


The room in which participants were tested contained 15 tape-recorders with headphones attached. When the participants entered the room they were asked to sit at a desk which had a tape recorder on it. The participants were told that they were taking part in a study examining memory for pictures. They were then instructed to put the headphones on and listen carefully to the instructions given by the experimenter. The experimenter informed the participants that when the experiment began they would be asked to press the Play button on the tape-recorders. They were told that they would hear someone reading out a list of words and that this was designed to distract them from the other task they would be required to do. They were informed that they should look at the pictures contained in the booklet which was in front of them.

They were told that they should look at the pictures carefully and try to memorize them as they would be tested later in the experiment. One group of participants were told that they should also try to ignore the words being presented by the tape recorder. Whereas participants in the other condition were told that they would probably be distracted by the words but that this did not matter. They were not explicitly told to ignore the words.

Once everyone had indicated that they had understood the instructions they were told that the task would last for 6 minutes and the experiment was commenced. Upon completion of the encoding task the experimenter asked the participants to remove the headphones and read the instructions on the front cover of the recognition booklet. They were informed that they would have five minutes to go through the booklet and put a circle around all the words that they thought they recognised as having been presented earlier by the tape recorder. Upon completion of this recognition task the participants were requested to assemble in another room where they were debriefed by the experimenter.

The analysis of the adjusted recognition scores showed that there was no difference between the ignore and not ignore conditions beyond that attributable to sampling error. This clearly represents a failure to support the experimental hypothesis. The findings have also failed …

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