Have you tried to talk yourself out of unwanted negative thinking—those inner diatribes against your own body, likability, accomplishments or luck, for instance, or against someone or something else—but had little success? It could be because your inner pep talks lack one simple yet crucial physical element, a recent series of three fascinating experiments shows. The missing key: A garbage can! Here’s what the researchers discovered about how a trash can help halt inner trash talk…

Experiment #1: Body blues. Participants were given sheets of paper and instructed to spend three minutes writing down thoughts about their own bodies. Some participants were asked to write positive thoughts…others were asked to write negative thoughts. Next, within each group, half of the participants were told to reread what they had written, contemplate those thoughts, then review what they’d written for spelling and grammar errors. The other half of the participants were told to reread and contemplate their thoughts, then to rip up their papers and throw them into a garbage can. Afterward, all participants answered various body-image questionnaires that used nine-point scales to assess how much each person liked or disliked his/her own body.

Fascinating findings: When participants held onto the pieces of paper containing their written thoughts, those thoughts had a significant impact on how they felt about their bodies. In other words, participants who had been assigned to write positive remarks about their bodies rated themselves higher on the nine-point scales, while those assigned to write negative remarks rated themselves lower. However, among participants who were told to throw out the pieces of paper containing their written thoughts, there was no difference in body-image test scores between the positive and negative groups—strongly suggesting that the act of physically discarding the written-down negative thoughts took away the power of those thoughts to damage self-image.

Experiment #2: Diet judge. Each participant was instructed to write either negative or positive thoughts about the Mediterranean diet after being reminded that it involves lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes and unrefined grains, with olive oil as the main fat. One group of participants was then instructed to toss their papers away…a second group was told to place their papers in their pockets or purses…a third group was told to leave their papers at their desks. Afterward, all participants were asked to rate the healthiness and desirability of the Mediterranean diet using various nine-point scales.

Intriguing results: Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet—which is generally regarded as quite healthful—was ranked most highly by people who wrote positive thoughts about it and then kept the paper in their pocket or purse…and by people who wrote negative thoughts and then discarded the paper. This suggests you can magnify the power of positive thoughts by writing them down and then protecting that paper…and that you can neutralize the power of negative thoughts to wrongly influence your judgment and attitude by writing them down and then throwing them away.

Experiment #3: Imagination investigation. Researchers wanted to know whether the physical act of throwing away the written thoughts was necessary or whether just imagining the act would be enough to influence subsequent attitudes. This time, participants were seated at computers and asked to type their negative thoughts about the Mediterranean diet into a document. Then one group of participants was instructed to dispose of their documents by using the mouse to drag them to the computer’s recycle bin…other participants protected their documents by saving them onto storage disks…and still other participants were told to simply imagine moving their files to either the recycle bin or a storage disk. Then, as in the earlier experiment, all the participants were asked to rate the diet.

What happened next: Even though sending the typed thoughts to the recycle bin did not require physically tossing out a piece of paper, the physical act of using the mouse to perform the disposal had the same effect as throwing out a piece of paper—it reduced the impact of the participants’ written thoughts on their evaluations. However, the diet evaluations of those who simply imagined moving their files to the recycle bin demonstrated that these participants were still under the influence of their written thoughts.

How remarkable it is to know that physically tossing away your negative thoughts really does toss them away!

Use these insights to your advantage. Though this study focused primarily on the effects of discarding negative thoughts, it also suggests that the phenomenon works both ways—so that by protecting positive thoughts, you can increase their power. Why not give it a try? For instance, if you have a job interview and want to portray yourself as confident, you could tuck a note into your pocket, telling yourself that you are competent and in control. When your brain is stuck on a negative thought that’s interfering with your attitude or behavior, scribble it on a piece of paper—and then deliberately and mindfully toss it in the trash. Good riddance!