Perverse Desire
Joshua Landy

18 August 2023

Why do some people have a strange desire to do weird things for no (good) reason? There's something fascinating about kids who eat laundry soap as part of a “challenge,” or people who deliberately loiter on the steps with the “no loitering” sign, just because the sign is there. These are curious things to want to do. So what are people getting out of them?

Some might say there’s nothing to explain here. Sometimes you just want to do weird things, and that’s it; no reason required. Still, if you find yourself eating laundry soap, doing untold damage to your internal organs, it sure seems like you’ve got a bit of ’splaining to do.

When it comes to cases like loitering, maybe we could say it's just a bit of innocent fun: after all, who wouldn't love jumping into the lake that says “no swimming,” or walking on the lawn that says “keep off the grass”? It doesn’t harm anyone, arguably, and it might give you a little thrill to break the rules. So perhaps what’s driving us is simply a desire for pleasure.

But when it comes to eating laundry soap, that’s probably not much fun, and it does harm someone—the eater! What would make someone go so dramatically against their own interests, and for no obvious gain?

Part of the answer here could, of course, be peer pressure. (Though frankly it would take an awful lot of friends to convince me to ingest detergent.) The problem is that peer pressure can’t explain that sneaky walk on the fellows’ lawn at midnight, when there’s no one around. How could our peers be pressuring us when they’re not even there?

So maybe the motivation for these curious acts is a sense of rebellion. Perhaps people who do these things could be trying to “stick it to the man”; they don’t like authority, and they think they can strike a blow against it by trampling on a couple of blades of grass. Or at least that they can affirm their personal liberty, even if they’re not dismantling the class system with a single footstep.

All of these explanations assume that the grass-walker, the lake-swimmer, and even the soap-swallower see something good in what they’re doing. They desire these things “under the guise of the good,” as philosophers have put it. (The idea, though not the phrasing, goes all the way back to Socrates.) Maybe they don’t want the ruination of their digestive system, but they do want the freedom to ingest crazy things.

That theory may seem quite sensible, but I don’t know how universal its applicability is. When we embark on a course of action, do we always consider it good in some way? Let’s say I’m sitting on the sofa eating my twelfth gummy bear. Let me assure you: I don’t see anything good in what I’m doing. I want not to eat that twelfth gummy bear. And yet here I am eating it.

Sure, eating laundry soap is a bit different from eating gummy bears—my problem is a lack of willpower, whereas theirs is, if anything, having too much of it! But there’s still a puzzle here. Do soap-eaters have a reason for their actions? And even if they do have a reason—showing off, asserting their independence, finding out what strange things taste like, or whatever—why would they care more about those things than about not poisoning themselves?!

It's a puzzle to which our guest will surely have some answers: it's Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and author of “The Strange Appeal of Perverse Actions.”

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Comments (1)

LucyCoffee's picture


Tuesday, May 21, 2024 -- 8:37 PM

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