"What was I thinking?" We've all uttered these words from time to time when we say the wrong thing, make a stupid decision, or engage in some other temporary lapse in judgment. Despite our tendency to joke away our gaffes, they can be quite embarrassing.

You'll be happy to know that these lapses do not reflect poor social skills or lack of intelligence. In fact, this is actually interpreted by some experts as being Mother Nature's way of playing tricks on us. When we say-or do-the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, it's the brain's overzealous attempt to avoid a faux pas. In other words, we do exactly what we're trying so hard not to do. Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor who studies the role of thought in self-control and social life, calls this phenomenon a counter-intentional error.

Counter-Intentional Errors

Have you ever consciously tried not to think about something, for example saying the wrong thing in front of your date or in a job interview? It doesn't work; the very thing you're trying not to think about continues to sneak into your thoughts. Behind the scenes, your unconscious mind is searching for the mental state you're trying so hard to avoid. Usually this occurs when we're attempting to be socially desirable.

Normally our conscious and unconscious minds work together to produce cognitive inhibition and to prevent us from making these errors. However, being tired, stressed, or otherwise distracted disrupts this inhibitory process. Fortunately, we're usually successful in controlling our actions. Wegner says this is because we use effective strategies for self control when we're not in stressful situations.

How to Prevent Embarrassing Gaffes

So what can you do to prevent lapses in judgment?

1. Minimize stress. Try to orchestrate your circumstances to minimize stress and other distractions when you're in an important situation and want to avoid suffering a lapse in judgment.

2. Practice. Practicing a way of thinking or an action (such as behaving in a socially acceptable way) makes it become automatic, minimizing the likelihood of a lapse under stress.

3. Limit your alcohol consumption. Alcohol lessens our inhibitions. When you've had too much to drink, you're much more likely to do or say something you will later regret.

4. Relinquish control. If you are always striving to be in control, try to relax your standards a bit. Accept situations rather than try to control them.

If you are frequently blurting out inappropriate comments, check with your physician to rule out an underlying cause, such as Tourette syndrome, Aspergers syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.


Wegner, Daniel M. "How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion." Science 325 (2009): 48 - 50. Web. http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Wegner%20(2009).pdf

von Hippel, William, and Gonsalkorale, Karen. '''That Is Bloody Revolting!' Inhibitory Control of Thoughts Better Left Unsaid." Psychological Science 16( 7) (2005): 497-500. Web. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/foot_mouth.pdf