By Jena Pincott, published on September 1, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016
One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul, which...in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts. —Herman Melville
Not long ago, Carla, a newly divorced woman, was awake until two or three in the morning on Facebook. “I was feeling a little wistful,” she says, “and I looked up the man who nearly ruined my life two decades ago.” He was an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with her close friend, an attractive singer; Carla had been tipped off about the affair by a mutual buddy and later caught the couple in flagrante delicto.
The singer and the ex eventually married and had kids.
But now the woman was dying. Carla’s ex chronicled on Facebook the painful story of her late-stage cancer and the family’s coping efforts. There were pictures of the former friend, now hollowed-out and bald. “At first I felt a jolt of joy,” Carla says. “It was a kind of karmic boomerang for how they treated me.” She started to check in several times an hour for the latest update. But her giddiness soon turned to guilt because part of her knew that the couple was experiencing a far worse fate than betrayal.
Yet the more she tried not to think about their suffering, the more it returned as a knee-jerk pick-me-up.
If we ever dare to examine them closely, our unvoiced thoughts scare and shame us; we get off on cheap thrills and the misery of others. Consider the paradoxes: We gush over a newborn, then flash to how easy it might be to crack open his head. We console a pretty friend about a bad one-night stand, then privately savor her humiliation. We value our lives and those of others but still have the fleeting impulse to drive the car off the bridge.
It’s surprising how little control we seem to have over the timing and content of “bad” thoughts. In a landmark experiment back in the 1980s, psychologist Eric Klinger, of the University of Minnesota, asked volunteers to record what they were thinking whenever a handheld device chirped over the course of a week. Within a 16-hour day, he found, people have about 500 thoughts that are unintentional and “intrusive” and that last about 14 seconds on average. While most dealt with the concerns of everyday life, 18 percent were unacceptable, uncomfortable, or just plain bad—politically incorrect or mean thoughts. A remaining 13 percent were ugly, out of character, or downright shocking—say, murderous or perverse ideas.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was among the first to grapple deeply with wicked thoughts. In his Psychology of the Unconscious, he observes that every person has a “shadow self.” This self, he explains, is the unconscious part of our psyche, a repository of base animal instincts and dark desires. We repress it—but only for so long before “a possible outburst.”
Where does this dark side come from? The part of the mind we don’t identify with and over which we have little say. If, as neuroscience often describes it, a set of cognitive processes gives rise to the “I” that we think of as ourselves—our normal, decent, rational side—other processes must give rise to a darker, irrational mind, in which intrusive thoughts lurk.
Klinger’s theory is that a “preconscious” mechanism in the brain is always scanning the environment for underlying concerns and cues that tap into our emotions. When it encounters a trigger, a renegade thought bursts seemingly out of nowhere. The neuroscientist Sam Harris calls these thoughts “random,” and completely out of our control. In Free Will, he writes, “The idea that we as conscious beings are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map onto reality.”
In 2008, an Austrian woman was released from an underground vault where, for more than two decades, she had been imprisoned, raped by her father, and forced to bear seven children. Who would google the story in an attempt to mine all the lurid details? Everyone, it seems.
We’re embarrassed to admit morbid curiosity because it feels perverse and exploitative; after all, people were hurt. Think slasher-film fans, emotional rubberneckers, and the folks drawn to online sites featuring misshapen fetuses and other gruesome images. They’re not showing the typical empathy response.
Thirty years ago, University of Delaware psychologist Marvin Zuckerman observed that most of us are interested in disturbing events, but none are more riveted than those with a sensation-seeking personality type. They may be unaware of it, but people who are overly fascinated by the aberrant or macabre have a much more intense electrodermal response (a proxy for sweat) than others when watching gruesome news stories. More stimulated by terror, they’re less able to regulate their physical or emotional responses to it. While others avoid or dislike the intensity, sensation-seekers crave it. Having a variant of the receptor gene for the neurotransmitter dopamine may play a role in their personality.
Another draw of the morbid is that it can be cathartic, says Wake Forest psychologist Eric Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck. Thinking about human suffering may cause emotional pain, but it also allows us to entertain, or purge, our own dangerous impulses and destructive emotions without harming ourselves or others. It may also give us a sense of awe. “I might feel a new appreciation for my own life,” Wilson adds. “I’m alive; my family is alive!”
“Focus your attention on your genitals for a few seconds and try to prove to yourself that you feel absolutely no sensations there,” dares Lee Baer, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in his book, The Imp of the Mind. For many of us, the worst thought is a sexual taboo: the idea of walking down the street and grabbing at others’ privates, exposing oneself publicly, or getting turned on by the family mastiff. People with such concerns will often check themselves for signs of arousal.
Good news: A tingle of arousal doesn’t prove anything. “Any sensitive part of the body that we focus all our attention on will have some feelings,” Baer explains. Just because you’ve had a thought about sexually assaulting a child, for instance, doesn’t mean you actually want to act on it. We are hardwired to think about sex, and a mind that torments itself with worst possible scenarios can piggyback on that natural drive. Not every thought should be taken at face value.
Female fantasies about rape have their own unique logic. While no one actually wants a brute to overtake her in an alleyway, up to 57 percent of women admit (often ashamedly) that such a thought has arisen in their minds and that they’ve been turned on by it, according to a meta-study at the University of North Texas. One explanation is that women want to be overwhelmingly desired—so much that men can’t control themselves. Another is that fear and disgust get the heart and endorphins racing, which contributes to a turn-on. Or perhaps the idea of being forced allows a woman to indulge blamelessly in repressed desires.
This much is clear: In a rape fantasy, women control all the sexual stimuli in the safety of their minds, and—as with most forbidden thoughts—in no way does imagining an attack suggest an actual desire.
You hate that voice in your head that nudges you when you’re around people who are different. They may be in a wheelchair, a chador, or drag. They may hail from a foreign country or the wrong side of the tracks. They may have a different smell, sexuality, size, or skin tone. An unwanted voice in your head may question their abilities, motives, hygiene—even their humanness.
You can blame a primitive self-protective mechanism for such politically incorrect thoughts, asserts Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. In the long ago past, we evolved an aversive response to people who were members of out-groups and other tribes because they potentially heralded a threat of alien pathogens our systems couldn’t beat. Although this “immune system” theory of protective prejudice doesn’t fully explain (much less excuse) all the bigotry in the world today—homophobia, xenophobia, fat-shaming, religious intolerance—it may well play a supporting role.
When prejudiced thoughts come up, they dumb us down. In their research on racial bias, social psychologists Jennifer Richeson, at Northwestern, and Nicole Shelton, at Princeton, asked whites to look at black faces and blacks to look at white faces. The more prejudiced a person, as rated in a pretest, the worse he or she performed on a subsequent cognitive test. In a separate brain-imaging study, Richeson found that racially biased people had increased activity in brain regions involved in controlling inappropriate thoughts and behavior when looking at faces of outsiders. The upshot is that when most people become conscious of their prejudiced musings, they try to suppress them—an effort that drains cognitive resources. One might use a lot of brainpower to avoid a moment like the one when Joe Biden called Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.”
The good news is that automatic biases can nonetheless be overcome. Simply recognizing how these biases taint our decisions and behavior can help, says Richeson. “Try to worry less about appearing prejudiced or saying the wrong thing,” she says. “Instead, focus more on what you may learn from or about the person you’re interacting with.”
Imagine two beautiful young women. Both are caught driving drunk, have their licenses suspended, and are sentenced to time in jail. One is the kid next door. The other is Paris Hilton. Whose punishment gives you more satisfaction?
Hilton by a long shot, right? That jibes with the results of a study led by Australian psychologist Norman Feather, at Flinders University, in which volunteers heard about two students who got caught cheating and were expelled. People reported feeling much happier when the overachiever was punished than when the average Joe was.
What these scenarios inspire is schadenfreude, German for “joy-pain,” the primal pleasure in another’s misfortune. “To savor schadenfreude is diabolic,” Schopenhauer once said. But research shows that rejoicing in the failures of others is not inspired by cruelty so much as status. When enviable people fall, we feel smarter, more entitled, or morally superior in comparison, says Richard Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of The Joy of Pain. It’s the very reaction we might have when a rival’s kid doesn’t get into Harvard, a hotshot sister has fertility problems, or news anchor Brian Williams is caught lying about his accomplishments. They’ve been taken down a peg.
Schadenfreude may have its roots in the motivation to increase social stature and to punish unfairness. So how can we explain the fact that many of us feel guilty about delighting in the downfall of others, especially if we identify with the victims? “There’s no point flogging ourselves for emotions that are so much a part of everyday experience,” Smith says. To introduce an antidote, he says, put yourself in the shoes of the suffering person and focus on the ways in which you yourself are fortunate. “Gratitude runs counter to envy,” he explains, “and envy causes schadenfreude.”
You might be chopping onions one day in your kitchen and have this flash in your mind: Hey, what if I killed my partner?
The thought itself might be shocking, but having it isn’t unusual. If having murderous thoughts were a crime, nearly all of us—91 percent of men and 84 percent of women—would be guilty, reports evolutionary psychologist David Buss, author of The Murderer Next Door and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Even mild-mannered folk have occasional fleeting reveries about shoving a stranger off the subway platform, running over a crowd, stabbing a partner during sex, raping and strangling a boss, or smothering an elderly parent, according to Buss.
He poses a radical theory: Because our remote ancestors killed to survive and reproduce, they passed along genes that include a predisposition to kill. He believes that all of us have “specialized psychological circuits that lead us to contemplate murder as a solution to adaptive problems”—especially those related to mating, stress, status, resource limitations, and threats to safety.
In an added twist, some people torment themselves with worst-case scenarios in which they’ve lost control, like swerving their car into oncoming headlights or dropping their precious baby from the 13th-floor balcony. These disturbing ideas, often brought on by stress, may upset us so much that we become more vigilant to keep ourselves in check; with too much vigilance, however, thoughts may tip into obsessions.
Murderous thoughts, of course, also precede real-life violence. But Buss argues that most of the time they do the opposite:
They actually inhibit savage impulses by allowing people to evaluate a situation before pulling the proverbial trigger. The scenario plays out, the prefrontal cortex kicks in, the thought passes.
But in the case of sexual, violent, hateful, or other thoughts, what happens when we try to suppress them instead?
One should never forbid what one lacks the power to prevent.
As ashamed as Carla feels about having vindictive thoughts about her ex-boyfriend and his dying wife, she shouldn’t try to avoid thinking them. A large body of research suggests that if she does, they could grow into an obsession. They’d gain power and import. What Jung said of the shadow self may also apply here— that a thought is “most destructive, insidious, and dangerous when habitually repressed and projected.”
Suppressing a thought is like chopping off the Hydra’s head: Do it, and myriad more pop up in its place. In a famous study by the late Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, volunteers were told not to think about a white bear for five minutes but to ring a bell if and when the thought erupted anyway. The bells surely rang—on average, six times—twice as often as in the control group, where subjects were allowed to think of white bears.
The problem in making a topic off-limits is that your brain is always self-monitoring to make sure you’re not thinking of it. This recursion has an ironic catch: It summons the forbidden thought back to awareness and supercharges it. Guilt and self-disgust wear down willpower, and the exiled thought returns even more frequently. Distractions backfire, too. Suppress, surface, suppress, surface. … Beat down the thought at bedtime and it will rebound in your dreams.
Anyone would find this cycle maddening, but for some it’s a dangerous spiral worsened by depression and stress. Increased efforts to suppress thoughts may lead to stronger rebounds. A condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder can turn a bad thought into a painful preoccupation that consumes at least an hour a day—often much more—and interferes with everyday life.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder—as many as one in 50 Americans—have a few qualities in common, says clinical psychologist Baer. They’re likelier to come from a culture, religion, or family that values obedience. They have social anxiety and are sensitive to how others perceive them—their worst possible thoughts are often societal taboos. Those with this disorder also believe it’s necessary to maintain perfect self-control and that, if they fail, they’ll “go insane and act on their thoughts.”
But who has such control over the mind? If the self really is just an illusion to make sense of reality, it didn’t create the dark thought, nor can it prevent it. The shadow self has no master.
For some, the fixation leads to an avoidance of situations related to the forbidden thought. They check fruitlessly for evidence that they haven’t already, unconsciously, acted on the thought. How can I be sure I didn’t molest the infant? Or offend God? Did I reveal something offensive and not know it? If I haven’t snapped already, will I?
When unwanted thoughts are mildly intrusive, Baer recommends a technique that’s borrowed from Buddhism—a radical acceptance of the thought, no matter how scary or shameful. Here’s how it works: When the unwanted thought arises, label it as “just a thought.” Treat it as if it has no inherent meaning and stop taking it so seriously. Ravish your pew-mate during the sermon? Just a thought. Delighted when a higher-up fumbles during her PowerPoint presentation? Just a thought. Wish your spouse were dead? A thought. Or that your kids were never born? Just another thought. Don’t judge yourself, don’t fight it; just let it drift away. Repeat, if it drifts back.
Another strategy for letting go of an offending thought is to write it down on paper, then throw it in the trash—subjects who did this in a study at Ohio State University were less influenced by the thought than those who didn’t literally discard it. Or experiment with the so-called doorway effect. University of Notre Dame researchers found that physically entering a new room cues the brain to move on to the next thought, freeing the mind by dropping short-term memories.
For obsessive, troubling thoughts, consider a more extreme approach: Don’t let the thought go. Not yet. Instead, play the whole awful idea out in your mind. As part of this intensive exposure technique, Baer asks sufferers to write—and record themselves reading—a script of what would happen if the dark thought came to pass.
For instance, the wife tormented by the thought of killing her spouse in his sleep would describe, in painful detail, how she smothers him with a pillow, then watches the sunrise alone, sees her mugshot under a boldfaced headline, and envisions her friends’ horrified reactions, the loneliness of a jail cell, an eternity in Hell, and so on. Then she’d listen to the recording daily, for weeks, at specific practice times under the supervision of a therapist, making sure to be in the room with her husband at night rather than accede to the impulse to steer clear.
Writing is a way to impose order on the unruly voices in our heads, helping to tame and reframe them. “Set aside ten minutes,” suggests James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “Write out what the forbidden thoughts are and perhaps why you think you are having them. Why do they bother you so much? How might they be related to other things in your life now or in the past?”
Contemplation helps us realize what’s important: We all have shameful or scary thoughts, but what we do with them and the significance we attach to them are key. We can embrace the idea that our dark musings have no real meaning and let them go. Or we can find a way to parlay them into an understanding of ourselves and others. Can a thought—however shameful, morbid, perverted, prejudiced, bloodthirsty, masochistic, or just plain petty—become an object of contemplation? A source of creativity? Empathy? An insight into an unconscious agenda?
“That’s where imagination comes in,” says Eric Wilson. “More imaginative people are able to envision dark thoughts in a way that stimulates expansion in thought and feeling.”
Jung’s outlet for his most troubling thoughts was his journal, later published as The Red Book. In one of many dreamlike scenes, he encounters a red horseman. Its presence is discomfiting, but Jung doesn’t ignore or deny it. He and the “red one” talk, quarrel, dance. Afterward, he experiences an odd sense of joy. The exchange feels like reconciliation.
“Surely this red one was the devil,” he realizes, “but my devil.”
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