Foot-in-Mouth: Why We Do It

Scientists have figured out one surprising reason why we make social gaffes we desperately wish to avoid: Ironically, the very act of trying to avoid saying or doing something can sometimes cause it to happen.

"When these things do happen we sort of smile and look the other way," said Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University. "The curious thing is it's the desire not to do those things that seems to increase the likelihood of doing them."

In the July 3 issue of the journal Science, Wegner describes accumulating evidence that suggests many of our embarrassing moments are the result of miscommunications between conscious and unconscious mental processes.

How it works

Here's what happens, Wegner figures: The first line of defense is conscious, in which we intentionally try to avoid thinking about, say, an inappropriate sexual act. Distracting ourselves by thinking about other things is one way to avoid the thought.

The second part involves our unconscious minds. While we try to distract ourselves, a covert search is underway, monitoring our heads for any inkling of that unwanted thought. If it rears its ugly head, the unwanted thought gets flagged so our conscious minds can squash it.

But this unconscious control system is vulnerable to blips, particularly when we are stressed or have lots of things on our minds, Wegner said.

Such stressors can interfere with our conscious effort to avoid a thought or action. The result: Our unconscious mind that's been looking for such a thought takes over and all heck can break loose.

"The conscious process of trying to do the right thing is hampered, and the unconscious process is free then to increase its sway over your behavior and mind," Wegner told LiveScience.

Sex, golf and wine

The brain blip, though a rare occurrence, could explain things we are trying to avoid at all costs, such as spilling red wine on a white dress, making some sexist or racist remark, and even missing a golf putt or goal shot in soccer.

Wegner offers some advice: "You can avoid being in performance situations when you're under mental load or stress." In addition, you could "practice, practice, practice," he added.

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.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.