Friday, July 10, 2009

Doing exactly what you don't want to do.

Dan Wegner has generated an interesting review of a phenomenon that we all know too well. (Wegner is another one of my heroes. He wrote "The Illusion of Conscious Will" - a book that I reference extensively in my "I-Illusion" web lecture and podcast). The subject of the review is the "Imp in your mind" that makes you sometimes blurt out exactly what you are trying to suppress. The theory is that to suppress an insult, for example, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, which in turn increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.
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.

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