A 100-Year Old Word Repetition Technique is Effective in Reducing the Impact of (Negative) Words


Repeat the word milk for 45 seconds or more (remember to say it out loud), and you will find that the word begins to lose its meaning. It’s called the Milk Milk Milk exercise, and it is just one of many word repetition exercises. Try it yourself before you read any further… did the word milk lose its meaning?

Word repetition exercises were first used by British psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1916. If you are interested, you can read more about the technical principles behind the word repetition exercise in Titchener’s original book on p. 425.

The purpose of the exercise is to remove the emotional impact or discomfort and believability of specific words or thoughts, words or thoughts that may cause emotional discomfort.

We tend to believe and give personal meaning to our thoughts, and this exercise helps us detach ourselves from unhelpful thoughts or so-called “self-relevant negative thoughts”. This process is sometimes called cognitive defusion. So, this word repetition technique is one of many cognitive defusion techniques.

How does the word repetition exercise work? When we repeat a word for 45 seconds or more (again, remember to say it out loud), the word eventually becomes a series of meaningless sounds and letters. In this way, the word begins to lose its associations, its emotional impact, and eventually its believability.

We want to decrease the believability of strong negative self-referential words (e.g., stupid, ugly, inadequate etc.) as these words have a negative impact on our quality of life and mental health.

But why is a 100-year old exercise relevant? Well, research supports its effectiveness. Here is a brief summary of the evidence. Masuda, Hayes, Sackett et al. (2004) found that:

“The cognitive defusion technique reduced both discomfort and believability more so than the comparison approaches.”

Masuda, Hayes and Lillis et al. (2009) extended this finding to:

“… emotional discomfort and believability may be distinctive functional aspects of cognitive events.”

More specifically, the authors found that the emotional impact of words was reduced after 3 to 10 seconds of word repetition, while the effects on believability did so after 20 to 30 seconds of repetition. So, the authors suggest that words or thoughts have two aspects, namely an emotional aspect and a believability aspect.

Masuda, Twohig and Stormo et al. (2010) compared the effects of the word repetition technique with thought distraction techniques on negative self-referential thoughts in a non-clinical population. The results were in favor of the word repetition technique.

So, we may say that this simple exercise is worthwhile. It is easy and it works for most people. How about that? Other psychological techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, may also help reduce the believability of thoughts via cognitive defusion.

Taken together, cognitive defusion techniques may help us reduce the negative effects of some thoughts. Exercise is all it takes.

Thank you for reading.

Photo: Pierre Metivier