the Imp of the Perverse

The urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

The imp of the perverse is the phenomenon where you have the urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time. The name comes from the 1845 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name which is part essay part short story. Poe lays out his theory how humans sometimes have a destructive drive that works against their best interests. It then goes on to be a short story of murder (as Poe stories tend to do).

What if I …

Like the imps of folklore, or maybe the cartoon devil on your shoulder, we each have a mischievous side that tells us to do something wrong just because we can. It can be something benign like the urge to shout in a quiet concert hall, or maybe to throw a coin off the top of a building, to jump out and scare someone, or maybe to tip over a carefully arranged stack of cans in the grocery store. Sometimes the ideas are more dangerous like thinking about driving your car off the road, pushing someone, etc. We don’t do it, but that little thought pops up sometimes.

A special kind of imp of the perverse is the French concept of “L’appel du vide” or “the call of the void”, where you stand at the edge of a precipice and think “I could just jump right over the edge” but then quickly back away. Studies of L’appel du vide (aka High Place Phenomenon) suggest that it isn’t suicidal – quite the opposite. Researchers believe that this is your brain warning you to be careful. It’s driven by a desire to continue living rather than the other way around.

Choices and ideas

It’s not fully understood why we have these thoughts, why the imp of the perverse pops up from time to time. One possible explanation is that we like to have options even if we know we would never choose some of them. Just knowing that we could do/say something is satisfying enough without actually doing/saying it. Another possibility is that these thoughts are part of an internal rebellious drive, part of what psychoanalyst Otto Rank called our “counterwill”, where we oppose feeling confined/controlled and so we try and assert our own individuality. It could be an internal way of feeling like an individual by thinking counter to what is expected & acceptable.

That said, some of these wild ideas are useful. They might be long shots, but occasionally one of these ideas is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that’s necessary for innovation. Sure most of these ideas are “hold my beer” bad but a few come along which might just be crazy enough to work. Purely rebellious ideas like dropping a coin off the top of a tall building isn’t going to do much but thinking outside of the norm is where big innovative ideas come from.

Thinking these thoughts is normal. Our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, helps us follow social norms and not follow through on these ideas. Still, every now and then the imp of the perverse manages to serve up something helpful.

Following the imp of the perverse, Jerry sets up Elaine for disaster.