The OED glosses earworm as "A catchy tune or piece of music (or occas. a word or phrase) which persistently stays in a person's mind, esp. to the point of irritation". I was surprised to see that the earliest citations are from 1991, in a translation from German and an explicit reference to a German original:
1991 J. Barrett tr. G. Weil Bride Price 53 In the vernacular, it's called an ‘earworm’—words, bits of music that won't leave you alone.
1991 Poetry Aug. 267 Earworm. A German phrase for a tune you cannot get out of your head.
But backing up the theory that earworm is a recent calque (i.e. borrowing-by-literal-translation) from German, Paul McFedries' "Word Spy" provides a quote from Howard Rheingold, "Untranslatable words," The Whole Earth Review, December 22, 1987:
The Germans use the word Ohrwurm (rhymes with "door worm," where the "w" is pronounced like a "v") to denote these cognitively infectious musical agents. Whenever somebody complains to you that he just can't keep the latest pop tune from running through his head, tell him he can dispel it by calling it by name and by thinking about the original German meaning, which captures some of the mnemonicalli [sic] parasitical connotations of the word, for Ohrwurm literally means "ear worm" and is also used to refer to a kind of worm that can crawl into the ear.
Anyhow, there's been quite a bit of scientific research on earworms over the past few years; and earworm science seems to be adopting the more dignified and formal phrase "involuntary musical imagery", which is less evocative but does have the advantage of distinguishing papers on this topic from those dealing with Heliothis zea:
C. Philip Beaman & Tim Williams, "Earworms (Stuck Songs)", British Journal of Psychology 101.4, 2010.
A.R. Halpern & J.C. Bartlett,"The persistence of musical memories: A descriptive study of earworms", Music Perception 2011
Lassi A. Liikkanen, "Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery", Psychology of Music, 40(2), 2012.
V.J. Williamson et al., "How do 'earworms' start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery", Psychology of Music, 40(3), 2012.
Freya Bailes, "Arousal, Valence and the Involuntary Musical Image", Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
Georgia Floridou et al., "Contracting Earworms: The Roles of Personality and Musicality", Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
V.J. Williamson & D. Müllensiefen, "Earworms from three angles: Situational antecedents, Personality predisposition and the quest for a musical formula", Proc. 12th Int. Conf. Mus. Perc. 2012
Lassi A. Kiikkanen, "Inducing involuntary musical imagery: An experimental study", Musicae Scientiae 2012
Ira E. Hyman Jr. et al., "Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head", Applied Cognitive Psychology 2013
C. Philip Beaman & Tim Williams, "Individual differences in mental control predict involuntary musical imagery", Musicae Scientiae 2013.
The abstract for that last paper is especially interesting:
The experience of earworms, a type of involuntary musical imagery, may reflect a systematic failure in mental control. This study focused on how individual differences in each of two factors, schizotypy, or “openness to experience”, and thought suppression might relate to the appearance of the involuntary musical image (earworm). Schizotypy was measured by Raine’s schizotypal personality questionnaire (SPQ; Raine, 1991) and thought suppression was measured by the White Bear Suppression Inventory (WBSI; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994). Each was found to contribute independently to the overall experience of involuntary musical imagery. Schizotypy was correlated with the length and disruptiveness of earworms, the difficulty with which they were dismissed and the worry they caused, but was not correlated with the frequency of such intrusive imagery. In turn, schizotypy was predicted by suppression and intrusion components of WBSI. The WBSI is associated with the length, disruptiveness, difficulty dismissing and interference but not with the worry caused or the frequency of earworms. The assumption of “ownership” of earworms was also found to affect the extent to which the earworms were considered worrying. Multiple regression analysis showed that both schizotypy and the WBSI predicted the difficulty with which unwanted musical images were dismissed, but that the WBSI accounted for additional variance on top of that accounted for by schizotypy. Finally we consider how earworm-management might relate to wider cognitive processes.
I like the phrase "earworm management" — surely it deserves a chapter in marketing textbooks, and maybe even a journal of its own, Frontiers in Earworm Management or something like that. But what really caught my attention was the White Bear Suppression Inventory, which I've somehow managed to miss until now.
But curiously, Wegner and Zanakos didn't give a reason in that paper for calling their test instrument the "White Bear Suppression Inventory" rather than the "Blue Duck Suppression Inventory" or whatever. My first thought was that the white bear must come from Chapter 3.XLIII of Tristram Shandy (1759), although Sterne's white bear thoughts are more obsessive than intrusive:
My father took a single turn across the room, then sat down, and finished the chapter.
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?—If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?
Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child's memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain, how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.—Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:—No, an' please your honour, replied the corporal.—But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?—How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?—'Tis the fact I want, replied my father,—and the possibility of it is as follows.
A White Bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
—Is the white bear worth seeing?—
—Is there no sin in it?—
Is it better than a Black One?
And the start of Chapter 3.XLV:
When my father had danced his white bear backwards and forwards through half a dozen pages, he closed the book for good an' all,—and in a kind of triumph redelivered it into Trim's hand, with a nod to lay it upon the 'scrutoire, where he found it.—Tristram, said he, shall be made to conjugate every word in the dictionary, backwards and forwards the same way;—every word, Yorick, by this means, you see, is converted into a thesis or an hypothesis;—every thesis and hypothesis have an off-spring of propositions;—and each proposition has its own consequences and conclusions; every one of which leads the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquiries and doubtings.—The force of this engine, added my father, is incredible in opening a child's head.—'Tis enough, brother Shandy, cried my uncle Toby, to burst it into a thousand splinters.—
So I wondered, did an association between white bears and obsessive thought-intrusions become a commonplace among psychologists at some point before 1994? If so, how did it happen and who did it?
One clue can be found in Daniel Wegner et al., "Paradoxical effects of thought suppression", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987:
It is sometimes tempting to wish one's thoughts away. Unpleasant thoughts, ideas that are inappropriate to the moment, or images that may instigate unwanted behaviors each can become the focus of a desire for avoidance. Whether one is trying not to think of a traumatic event, however, or is merely attempting to avoid the thought of food while on a diet, it seems that thought suppression is not easy. It is said, for instance, that when the young Dostoyevski challenged his brother not to think of a white bear, the child was perplexed for a long while. Contemporary psychology has not focused much inquiry on such puzzling yet important phenomena, and our research was designed to initiate such investigation.
And more information can be found in Daniel Wegner and David Schneider, "The White Bear Story", Psychological Inquiry 2003:
There are several stories that could be told about where the white bear article (Wegner et al., 1987) came from. The obvious ones are that (a) Freud (e.g. 1924) thought of all this long ago and developed it into a grand theory that informed an entire century of psychology and (b) both Dostoyevsky (1955) and Tolstoy (see Simmons, 1949) wrote about how difficult it is to avoid thinking about a white bear. A healthy shot of Freud mixed with a dash of Russian literature, all poured over the crushed ice of the cognitive revolution, and you have the white bear cocktail.
Here's another story. Two social psychologists at different universities in San Antonio get together to chat. Both are interested in person perception and self-perception, and one had read a quote from Dostoyevsky about white bears years before (unfortunately, in a Playboy magazine in college). The other had been thinking about people's inabilities to control strong emotions.
So I was curious to see what Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had to say about white bears. And I was not surprised to learn that the contexts of their discussions were different from one another, and were emotionally and intellectually richer than the simple question of involuntary or intrusive thoughts. Dostoyevsky is interested in whether genuine altruism is possible; and Tolstoy is concerned with the problem of getting a headstrong adolescent to focus on schoolwork.
The original Dostoyevsky reference is from "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" (1863), and in David Patterson's translation, it's a "polar bear" that you should try not to think of — the "white bear" version is apparently from an earlier translation.
Understand me: voluntary, completely conscious self-sacrifice imposed by no one, sacrifice of the self for the sake of all, is, in my opinion, a sign of the very highest development of the personality, of the very height of its power, the highest form of self-mastery, the greatest freedom of one's will. […] But there is one hair here, a very fine hair, which, if it falls into the mechanism, will at once crack and destroy everything. Namely: the misfortune to have even the slightest calculation for one's own advantage. […] The sacrifice must be made in just such a way as to offer all and even wish that you receive nothing in return, that no one will in any way be obligated to you. How is this to be done? After all, it is like trying not to think of a polar bear. Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done? There is no way it can be done, but rather it must happen of itself; it must be present in one's nature, unconsciously a part of the nature of the whole race, in a word: for there to be a principle of brotherly love there must be love.
Mother: I have just heard from the director of the school that you have got a bad mark again. That won't do, Nikolenka. It must be one thing or the other: learn or not learn.
Nicholas: I'll stick to the one I cannot, I cannot, I cannot learn. For God's sake, let me go. I cannot learn.
Mother: You cannot learn?
Nicholas: I cannot. It won't get into my head.
Mother: That is because your head is full of nonsense. Don't think about all your stupid things, but concentrate your mind on the lessons you have to learn.
Nicholas: Mother, I am talking seriously. Take me away from school. I wish for nothing else in the world but to get rid of that dreadful school, of that treadmill! I can't stand it.
Mother: But what would you do out of school ?
Nicholas: That is my own business.
Mother: It is not your own business, but mine. I have to answer to God for you. I must give you an education.
Mother: I forbid you to speak like that. How dare you! Go away! You will see —
Nicholas: Very well — I will go. I am not afraid of whatever comes, and I don't want anything from you. (Dashes out of the room and bangs the door.)
Mother: (to herself.) How unhappy he makes me. I know exactly how it has all come about. It is all because he does not think about the things he ought to do, and his head is full of nothing but his own stupid interests, his dogs, and his hens.
Katia: But, mother, you remember the tale you told me: how impossible it is not to think about the white polar bear when you are told not to.
Mother: I am not speaking of that; I say a boy has to learn when he is told to.
Katia: But he says he cannot.
Mother: That's nonsense.
Now I wonder: Did Tolstoy get his "(don't) think of a white bear" meme from Dostoyevsky? and did Dostoyevsky get it from Sterne? Or were their white bears independent inventions? Or was there some earlier white bear folk-meme that fed them all? This could lead somewhere …