As a near-professional grade eavesdropper, I get to be privy to a lot of conversations. Just a few days ago I heard two people talking about how, when they're driving sometimes, they get these strange, persistent urges to just yank their steering wheel and crash their car, dramatically and disastrously. As I walked past, I allowed myself an indulgent moment of smugness. I rolled my eyes and thought about how those people were loons, not like me, so very sane and rational and free of any bad thoughts, habits, or qualities. That lasted about three steps, because I soon remembered, oh yeah, I've had that feeling, too. I'm no better than those pathetic bastards.
Actually, my incident was slightly different. I had been on a long, solitary road trip, and after about six or eight hours I was definitely getting a bit loopy. I remember hitting a bumpy patch of road, and momentarily feeling my Beetle's steering wheel bounce and move with the road surface. Doing about 70 or so, you could easily feel how almost any motion of the wheel had far more dramatic consequences (especially in such a light car), and, in that moment, the realization that it would only take one quick yank of my hand to send me into an uncontrollable spin.
It wasn't so much that I had an urge to do it, but more that I was now hyper aware that I could. I didn't want to die, of course, having so much to live for (freshly done laundry, 4 out of 6 punches on my Subway™ card) but it was still incredibly hard to just put the notion out of my mind and drive.
I haven't really felt anything like that since, but the feeling was strong enough that it came back to me when I rudely listened in on these people's conversation. And, if me and some random Los Angelenos have felt something like this, maybe it is, in fact, A Thing?
Turns out, it absolutely is a thing. Hell, there's even a Straight Dope forum page dedicated to the feeling. They even have a name for it there: "The Pull." One poster summed up the feeling quite well as
I've felt what you're talking about, but I would not call it an "almost overwhelming urge". More like a "terrifying realization that it would be so easy to do something horrible."
That's pretty close. In fact, even Edgar Allen Poe knew about this strange, destructive force, and called it (in a way that makes me think of that Disney gremlin) The Imp of The Perverse. Essentially, it's an urge to do the worst possible thing in a given situation just because you could.
Driving is likely the most consequence-laden situation any of us are in on a daily basis, and likely the only situation we're regularly in that involves decisions with life-or-death results. That's why I think it's a common playground for the Imp of the Perverse.
I really wanted to know how common this actually was, so I called up a psychologist, Rachel Toles. I asked her if she had patients that talked about the urge to deliberately crash while driving, and she said absolutely. She told me it stemmed from a "lack of ability to tolerate anxiety" and also from "feeling desparate or being out of control."
She told me these feelings could be categorized in several ways, but they all fall under the heading of "anxiety," which is the most commonly diagnosed condition by psychologists by far. And driving is a common situation because, of course, so many people drive, and it's relatively easy to get your hands on a car. As she told me:
"Getting your hands on a gun is a lot more difficult than driving."
And, it turns out she's absolutely right. I'm not a particularly anxious person, but if I've felt it, I bet other people have. Interestingly, I've never heard about anybody who's actually acted on these crazy urges, so our brains must be pretty good at eventually doing the right thing. Which is good, because nothing's worse than your own brain telling you to do something so crazy in your car, especially when it's not even as much fun as doing donuts in a parking lot. That's why aside from splitting restaurant checks and the occasional advice during a Trivial Pursuit game, I never even talk to my brain.
What I'm really curious about is if anyone has ever experienced this as well? And, has anyone ever acted on these urges, or known anyone who has? Let's get into the comments and talk about this, how about?