Big Mouth: Mission Imp Possible

This article first appeared in issue 233 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Chances are, at some point today or tomorrow you’ll think of something terrible. It might happen when you’re standing on a subway platform, waiting for a train, and suddenly a little voice in your head is telling you to jump. It might pop up in the office midway through a meeting, with your clients or colleagues unaware you’re imagining stabbing them in the eyes with a Sharpie.

You might be in the supermarket, seized by the notion of putting something extremely unexpected in the bagging area. Or it might happen at home, during dinner, when the sudden urge to say something unspeakable to your partner puts you right off your spuds.

You’re not alone. Edgar Allan Poe named it ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, the thought that “chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror.” It’s perfectly normal, and it seems we’ve all got it. According to psychology professor Dan Wegner, “knowing the worst that could happen is essential for control.” If we didn’t know what could go wrong, we wouldn’t know to avoid it – so our subconscious minds come up with worst-case scenarios and our conscious minds ensure we don’t let them occur.

Our conscious minds, then, are essentially watchmen, keeping an eye on us to make sure that we don’t do anything too perilously silly. Unfortunately, sometimes they let their guard down – and when they do, the imp escapes. The reasons are legion. For some it’s because they’ve had too much to drink, for others because they’ve had a few disco biscuits, for many it’s because they’re stressed, or sick, or sad. But the result is the same: what Wegner calls “errors of thought, speech and action” that can make us “think, say or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion.”

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