Reasons We Say the Wrong Thing

mark sanfordABC News Photo Illustration

When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to having an affair, he gave a speech explaining his behavior that drew sharp criticism from some, while others pointed to its honesty.

One thing that can be agreed upon is that it wasn't the typical politician's post-cheating speech, and might have made it less likely he will be able to reconcile with his wife.

"This was a whole lot more than a simple affair," Sanford said, calling it a "love story."

Sanford is far from the first politician -- or person -- to put his foot in his mouth. At issue is what makes so many people prone to doing this. A review by a Harvard psychology researcher in today's issue of Science takes a look at "How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion."

"Knowing the worst that could happen is essential for control," psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote. "But, sometimes, this sensitivity backfires, becoming part of a perverse psychological process that makes the worst occur."

He wrote in the review that the problem of saying the wrong thing has been written about by luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe, who called it the "imp of the perverse."

And the problem isn't just with speech; it afflicts athletes, too, who, instead of saying the wrong thing, will do the wrong thing.

Former New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch made a series of well-publicized throwing errors and former pitcher Rick Ankiel actually restarted his career as a hitter, now playing centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals, after throwing too many wild pitches.

But much of the idea of saying or doing the worst thing may be, in part, due to a concept known as "recall bias," said Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor and associate chair of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In other words, when a person thinks about a song and it comes on the radio, a person is likely to remember that happening.

"What I forget about is the thousands of times I thought of a song and it didn't come on the radio," he said. "It turns out that people often tend to have a bias for remembering things that stick out."

For those same reasons, he said, people who have thousands of thoughts in a day are likely to have a few stick out -- and those tend to be the thoughts most in conflict with their values and held beliefs. In other words, the "wrong" thoughts -- those that have to do with saying or doing the worst possible thing in a given situation -- will often stick in the mind.

Getting to the Bottom of Gaffes

But, then, why do some people act on inappropriate thoughts? The reasons, it turns out, can vary. For some people, it's almost reflexive.

"Some people are just impulsive, they have bad judgment," he said.

For others, however, it's that they have a different rewards system.

"Behaviors are motivated by something, usually their consequences," Abramowitz said. "When people say or do things, very often there's something in it for them but they don't always know what it is."

For people who engage in activities like heavy drinking or compulsive gambling, "there's often some sort of consequence to that that they see as rewarding. For the compulsive gambler, it's that high they get when they gamble," Abramowitz said.

For others, it can be the high of a substance or the elimination of stress.

And for people who kiss and tell, it might be bragging or alleviating feelings of guilt.

"What's the fun if no one knows that I'm doing this," or, "If I say this, I'll get it off my chest," Abramowitz said. "For some villains, they leave a calling card, because they want people to find out what they've been doing. It's almost like bragging."

But having a gaffe at some point is inescapable.

"Everyone does that from time to time," he said.

People can avoid it by thinking things through or bouncing what they will say off others to gauge the words' effects, but gaffes will happen.

Gaffes For Laughs

But, while these gaffes may generate anxiety in social situations, they have also propelled the comedy of hit shows like "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which thrived on creating uncomfortable moments.

"Sometimes, saying what's on your mind and what might be inappropriate -- that's part of the consequences -- can get laughs," said Abramowitz, who is a fan of the shows.

He notes that a lot of the humor generated by the "Seinfeld" character of Cosmo Kramer is because he often says the worst possible thing -- the elephant in the room.

But just as it's unclear why some people are more prone to commit gaffes and create uncomfortable situations, it's just as unclear why some people thoroughly enjoy those moments on television and why others don't.

"I don't know why some people like those kinds of shows, versus others," Abramowitz said.