Who hasn't thought about starting a food fight at a formal dinner function? Telling your interviewer about some embarrassing personal story? The worst thing to do at the wrong time? And then the internal fight starts: "The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing," says Poe, as quoted in the NY Times Science Tuesday article on why the imp in your brain gets out.

An article in Science (from which I took the title to this blog) addresses this odd desire to commit a counterintentional error of the most embarrassing sort:

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).
When I was younger I used to wonder what would happen if I ran up to the priest in the middle of Mass and pushed him over, pointed and laughed, and then ran away. I never tried it, but confessed once to my dad (who thought it was hilarious). I've thought many such things since then, and usually don't act on them (with a few embarrassing exceptions). It always surprises me when an image like that pops up - where did it come from?? Am I actually mean and bad way down deep in my heart?

The NY Times article asks a similar question: "Am I sick?"

In a few cases, the answer may be yes. But a vast majority of people rarely, if ever, act on such urges, and their susceptibility to rude fantasies in fact reflects the workings of a normally sensitive, social brain.
Ok, good - I'm (sort of) normal! The Science author writes, "Such ironies can be overcome when effective control strategies are deployed and mental load is minimized." Good to know. Minimize my mental load - destress my life, avoid distraction, and the like - and use effective control strategies. Uh-oh - therein lies the rub, to paraphrase Hamlet.

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," says Wegner in the Science article. "And then it does. 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."

Potentially effective strategies, Wegner says, include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them and disclosing problems rather than keeping them secret. Hmm. I think I'll have better luck avoiding people altogether.