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Why Some People Can't Hold Their Tongues

Scientists do strange things sometimes to find answers to vexing questions.

Take the chicken-feet-for-dinner experiment done by Bill von Hippel of the University of New South Wales.

Von Hippel wanted to know if some people are more prone than others to sticking their own foot in their mouth, figuratively speaking, and what circumstances might contribute to the problematic social "disease."

You know who we're talking about: those folks who just can't keep their traps shut when something out of the ordinary happens, and their commentary makes us cringe. If you're like most people, you've been there yourself a time or two.

Anyway, von Hippel used a survey to test people on their "inhibitory ability" -- how well they managed to suppress irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts. It wasn't clear how well the test would predict actual behavior. So then he divided his subjects into two social groups and served them chicken feet for dinner.

Each person in one group was served a fowl foot by a Chinese woman who described it as the national dish of China and her own favorite. Von Hippel's idea was that this would create a high-pressure social situation, as proper etiquette would suggest the diner not offend the woman.

The other group was served their arguably awful morsels by a non-Chinese woman who just said that it was Chinese food. This, presumably, was a lower-pressure situation for the patron.

"People who responded most negatively to the chicken foot dish under high social pressure turned out to be those who also performed worst on the inhibitory ability test," von Hippel reports. "They were much more likely to make a disapproving face and a negative statement such as: 'That's bloody revolting!'"

The study revealed an interesting detail.

"Even people with good inhibitory ability were likely to behave inappropriately when distracted," von Hippel said. "This suggests that our ability to suppress our true feelings is disrupted under demanding conditions."

Von Hippel says it's well known that the old and the very young are more prone to what many consider social blunders.

"However, this new research suggests that important variations occur in the general population in this inhibitory ability -- some of us are naturally better at holding our tongue than others," he said.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.