How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion

An excellent, humoristic and refreshing paper by Daniel M. Wegner explains why under cognitive load we tend to do precisely what we try not to do! The counterintentional error is "when we manage to do the worst possible thing, the blunder so outrageous that we think about it in advance and resolve not to let that happen." According to the author, examples of such cognitive catastrophy include the following: "We see a rut coming up in the road ahead and proceed to steer our bike right into it. We make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation and then cringe in horror as we blurt out exactly that thing. We carefully cradle the glass of red wine as we cross the room, all the while thinking "don't spill," and then juggle it onto the carpet under the gaze of our host."

Why would we do just the opposite of what we want to do?

Wegner explains that: "The ironic process theory suggests that we achieve [thought suppression] through two mental processes: The first is a conscious, effortful process aimed at creating the desired mental state. The person engaged in suppressing white bear thoughts, for example, might peruse the room or otherwise cast about for something, anything, that is not a white bear. Filling the mind with other things, after all, achieves "not thinking of a white bear."
As these distracters enter consciousness, though, a small part of the mind remains strangely alert to the white bear, searching for indications of this thought in service of ushering it away with more distractions.
Ironic process theory proposes that this second component of suppression is an ironic monitoring process, an unconscious search for the very mental state that is unwanted. The conscious search for distractions and the unconscious search for the unwanted thought work together to achieve suppression-the conscious search doing the work and the unconscious search checking for errors."

The combination of these two cognitive processes can explain why cognitive load increase counterintentional errors: "The control system underlying conscious mental control is unique, however, in that its monitoring process can also produce errors. When distractions, stressors, or other mental loads interfere with conscious attempts at self-distraction, they leave unchecked the ironic monitor to sensitize us to exactly what we do not want. This is not a passive monitor, like those often assumed in control system theories, but rather is an active unconscious search for errors that subtly and consistently increases their likelihood via processes of cognitive priming."

Wegner makes an entertaining review of recent experiments, anecdotes and citations related to ironic effects.

The last judgment by Hieronymus Bosch, 1500s

Figure: The last judgment by Hieronymus Bosch, 1500s. According to the author, "...illustrates the artist's apocalyptic vision of some of the worst that humans can think, say, or do." (Wegner, 2009)

Here is the abstract of the paper:

In slapstick comedy, the worst thing that could happen usually does: The person with a sore toe manages to stub it, sometimes twice. Such errors also arise in daily life, and research traces the tendency to do precisely the worst thing to ironic processes of mental control. These monitoring processes keep us watchful for errors of thought, speech, and action and enable us to avoid the worst thing in most situations, but they also increase the likelihood of such errors when we attempt to exert control under mental load (stress, time pressure, or distraction). Ironic errors in attention and memory occur with identifiable brain activity and prompt recurrent unwanted thoughts; attraction to forbidden desires; expression of objectionable social prejudices; production of movement errors; and rebounds of negative experiences such as anxiety, pain, and depression. Such ironies can be overcome when effective control strategies are deployed and mental load is minimized.

Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion. Science, 325(5936), 48-50. (Freely available in PDF)

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