We all occasionally say things better left unsaid. Blurt out an indiscretion, let slip some embarrassing home truth or unwittingly cause offense by a thoughtless remark.
American author Edgar Allan Poe blamed such careless utterances on “the imp of the perverse" (1) while Sigmund ascribed them to the “counter will.” (2) The French call such gaffes a ‘faux pas’ — literally a ‘false step’. This expression dates from the days of Louis XIV, a period when etiquette demanded everyone must dance perfectly. Making a ‘false step’ during one of the Royal balls was to risk expulsion from court.
To understand why faux pas occur, try this challenge. For as long as you can try not to think about a pink elephant.
While this may sound easy it is, as you will soon discover, very hard to do.
I’ll explain in a moment what it reveals about why we sometimes open our mouth only to put our foot in it.
But I’ll start by telling you the rather sad story of one of my students. For several months this young man, I’ll call him Martin, had been going out with a girl from a very wealthy upper class family. One winter’s day, her parents invited him to tea in their country mansion. It was a cold afternoon and a fire blazed in the grate. His girlfriend’s mother and father sipped their tea and eyed an increasingly embarrassed Martin with icy disapproval. From the moment he had met them, both had made it clear he was not the kind of young man their daughter should be dating.
As tea was coming to its tense conclusion the family’s Golden Retriever, who had been sleeping before the fire, woke up and, as dogs will, started to lick his nether regions. Suddenly Martin heard himself saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that?”
There was a stunned silence. Then the mother remarked, in a tone so glacial it could have frozen oceans.
“Give him a lump of sugar and perhaps he’ll let you.”
Martin was never invited back and, shortly after the girl, under pressure from her parents, dumped him.
“I still have no idea what made me say it,” Martin said sadly as he recounted his story. “But I was dreadfully anxious and the words just came out”.
Which brings us back to the challenge of not thinking about a pink elephant or, indeed, anything else you’d sooner block from your mind. However determined you are not to think of something you are likely to find that notion popping into your thoughts frequently and perhaps over a period of several days.
Ironic Process Theory
It’s a paradox. You struggle to delete from your thoughts something you are thinking about now while, at the same time and at some level, remembering not to think about it later!
Ironic process theory suggests that we achieve this trick by means of two processes.
First we seek to banish the thought from our consciousness through distraction by focusing our attention on other matters.
Second we subconsciously monitor our thoughts to alert us should the one we want to suppress arise.
Which is what makes the process ironic. We are actively engaged in watching out for the very thought we want to forget.
Because suppressing unwanted thoughts consumes energy and since there is only a finite amount available, we are especially at risk of allowing the suppressed thought to break through when stressed, anxious or engaged in an intellectually demanding task. In Martin’s case the anxiety of struggling to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s frosty parents led to him blurting out the previously suppressed thought.
In one study, participants were instructed not to think about a particular word and then to respond rapidly during a word association task. Under these circumstances they were more likely to blurt out the prohibited word than if they had been specifically told to attend on it. (3)
People told to stop thinking about sex exhibit higher levels of arousal then those asked to stop thinking about a more neutral subject. Indeed, arousal increases during the suppression of sexual thoughts to the same degree as when subjects are instructed to focus exclusively on erotic thoughts. (4)
In a study I conducted, a dozen heterosexual males were invited to watch a video of a stripper. They were wired to monitor stress levels and instructed to keep their eyes firmly on the lady’s face. Using eye tracking we were able record where they were looking. All but one was failed to keep his eyes averted do so for more than around 15 seconds. The struggle to suppress a desire to glance down at her naked body resulted in high levels of stress.
But the stress level of the sole male whose gaze never descended below the lady’s chin was off the scale.
So the next time you commit a faux pas don’t feel too embarrassed by your impulsive gaffe. Given the difficulty of keeping unwanted thoughts to ourselves, it’s a wonder we don’t commit many more faux pas than we do.
(1) Poe, E.A. (1845) ‘The Imp of the perverse’ Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine (July), vol. 28, 1–3.
(2) Freud, S. (1950) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, (J. Strachey, Ed) Vol. 1, 115–128. Hogarth: London.
(3) Wegner, D.M. & Erber, R. (1992) The Hyperaccessibility of Suppressed Thoughts Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 63 (6) 903 - 912.
(4) Wegner, D.M. , Shortt, J.W., Blake, A.W. & Page, M.S. (1990) The Suppression of Exciting Thoughts, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 58 (3) 409-418