Effects of Control Strategies on the Activation of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts in Elite Athletes

Sicong Liu, Jonathan R. Folstein, Lawrence G. Appelbaum, Gershon Tenenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Unwanted intrusive thoughts (UITs) are negative ruminations that occur commonly and show similar characteristics between clinical and nonclinical forms. Despite their prevalence and impact, the control processes of UITs remain unclear. This study aimed to capture the effects of three thought-control strategies on UITs through an interventional design with individualized choking thoughts among Elite athletes, while measuring behavioral and brain responses. Ninety athletes recollected recent “choking” experiences prior to being randomized into one of three groups that used either acceptance, suppression, or passive monitoring (control condition). The activation of choking thoughts during and after the thought control intervention was gauged through three measurement approaches, including conscious presence in mind, priming, as well as the amplitudes of the P3b and N400 event-related potentials (ERPs). To strengthen the causal inferences concerning thought control strategies, athletes’ working memory capacity was measured and controlled at baseline. Results indicated that, relative to passive monitoring, suppression led to enhanced priming and reduced conscious presence of UITs, whereas acceptance resulted in an opposite pattern of reduced priming and increased conscious presence of UITs. Moreover, UIT-related stimuli elicited less negative-going N400 amplitudes and more positive-going P3b amplitudes than UIT-irrelevant stimuli, although no effect of thought control strategies was identified on the ERPs. These findings contribute to the theoretical and mechanistic understanding of UIT control processes by revealing subtle effects of two fundamental UIT control strategies: suppression and acceptance. Such insights also bear meaningful applied implications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1395-1408
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • acceptance
  • ironic effect
  • suppression
  • thought control
  • unwanted intrusive thought

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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