Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing Sometimes Makes Us… Say the Wrong Thing

By Eliza Strickland | July 6, 2009 10:52 am

foot in mouthIt’s the date of your dreams. As the waiter pours the wine, you’re pouring on the charm. Then it happens: You uncork the most embarrassing, oafish and inappropriate thing you’ve ever uttered. And as a look of pure get-me-out-of-here takes hold on your date’s face, you think, “How on Earth could I have said that!” [Toronto Star] Now, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner suggests that the embarrassing phenomenon of putting your foot in your mouth comes from your brain’s overzealous attempt to avoid social gaffes.

 Wegner describes accumulating evidence that suggests many of our embarrassing moments are the result of miscommunications between conscious and unconscious mental processes [LiveScience]. Sitting across the table from your date, you may consciously run through the worst possible things you could say: an insulting remark regarding her ethnicity, perhaps, or an inappropriate sexual allusion. While your conscious mind then moves on to other subjects, the unconscious mind begins a ceaseless scan for those unwelcome thoughts. It’s that monitoring mechanism that can lead to trouble.

When our conscious minds are stressed and preoccupied — by, for example, a desire not to screw up — a subconscious process devoted to guarding against the mistake slips through. Unwanted thoughts pop into the forefront of your mind. “Even though your conscious mind is trying to do the right thing, the unconscious mind is looking for the worst. It’s trying to protect you, but it’s actually more resistant to distraction than the conscious mind,” said Wegner. A bit of distraction “will unveil the process that’s looking for the worst that could happen” [Wired.com]. Before you know it, an unwanted thought has made it into your dinner conversation, and your date is recoiling in horror.

For the review article, published in Science, Wegner combed through 60 related neuroscience and psychological studies to get to the root of why people say exactly the wrong thing sometimes, as well as the related phenomenon of doing the wrong thing, like missing a crucial golf putt. Wegner says that one strategy to avoid such failures is to “practice, practice, practice.” … By practicing a way of thinking or an action it becomes automatic (not a conscious effort), and so it’s more immune to the brain lapses [Live Science].

While that strategy may sound more appropriate for the golf course than the dating scene, Wegner says the same principle holds true. “The person who wants to avoid saying awkward things on the first date — well, by the 30th date, they’re not doing it anymore. They have to just brave it. In sports we know this, but we don’t think of social life the same way” [Wired.com], he says.

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Image: flickr / g-hat

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: decisions, learning
  • Christina Viering

    So there is a scientific reason behind those remarks!

  • mona

    Oh my goodness,
    This article has summed up something very confusing to me and to others to whom I try to explain it (including therapists). This has happened to me. I have gone to therapy and no one ever understood. I learned this fear from my grandmother who was abandoned during the Great Depression. Her fear of abandonment led her to fear saying the wrong thing to people who might reject her and provoke that hysterical feeling of being abandoned over again. I also, fear this in a way that is not rational. It is paralyzing…and destructive to my relationships. I have suffered from this so much. And I just saw an article that explains this phenomena. How incredibly helpful and hopeful. I don’t feel so alone! Thanks so much!

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