Ironic effects of sleep urgency

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 to support the ironic processing theory proposed by Wegner (1994). Wegner suggested that ironic effects are most likely when participants are given high mental load conditions. This was achieved in the current study by informing participants that they were to memorize the pictures in the booklet because their memory would be tested later in the study.

This clearly represents high mental load as defined by Wegner, however, the ironic effects that were predicted in this study failed to materialize. It could be that the experimental design used in the current study has highlighted conditions under which ironic effects do not occur. The current study used two tasks which require conscious cognitive effort. One of the tasks, listening to and remembering the words requires that the words would have to be consciously processed in order for them to be remembered. The distraction of requiring participants to consciously attend to and try to memorize visual stimuli was obviously competing for cognitive resources with the verbal stimuli.

The current study thus suggests that ironic effects are not as likely if the task that is trying to be inhibited or avoided also requires high levels of conscious cognitive effort. In contrast, the previous work into ironic effects has not used task which compete so much for cognitive processing resources. For example, Ansfield et al. (1996) looked at sleep instructions whilst playing arousing music. Falling asleep is not so much a conscious cognitive task unless you are deliberately thinking about strategies to help you fall asleep. Therefore, in such a study there would be less interference from the two tasks. A similar conclusion can be applied to the pendulum study of Wegner and Ansfield (1994).

Before accepting the above interpretations however, a number of issues need to addressed. The first problem with the current study is highlighted by the large variability in recognition scores within each of the two conditions (see Table 1 for standard deviations). The large variability along with the relatively low scores within each group suggests that the participants were to a large extent guessing. This in turn suggests that the participants heard few of the words and thus were unlikely to produce ironic effects. If this is the case then the current design represents an inadequate test of Wegner’s theory. Perhaps a better test of the theory would have been to give the participants fewer words to remember and have the words presented more than once. The memory test as it stands is probably too difficult.

An interesting possibility for future research might be to assess the effects of anxiety on the likelihood of ironic effects. It has been well documented by Eysenck (1992) that anxiety restricts the amount of conscious cognitive processing capacity available to people. This thus represents a naturally occurring situation of high mental load. In the current study high mental load was induced by requiring participants to memorise pictures. It may perhaps be better to have naturally occurring instances of high mental load.

It would thus be of theoretical interest to test participants for ironic effects when they are in an anxious state and see if such effects are more prevalent than at times of low anxiety. In conclusion, the current study has shown that there was no real difference between the ignore and not ignore groups in terms of their ability to recognise the words presented to them on the tape recorder. This represents a failure to support the experimental hypothesis and the ironic processing theory proposed by Wegner (1994).


Ansfield, M.E., Wegner, D.M., & Bowser, R. (1996). Ironic effects of sleep urgency. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 3,7, 523-531.

Carrol, J. B., Davis, P., & Richman, B. (1971). The American heritage word frequency book, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Eysenck, M.W. (1992). Anxiety: The Cognitive Perspective, LEA, New York.

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