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Photo: Paleontour

Can our well-wishes, however well-intentioned, have the opposite effect?

AFTER THE LAST text from my friend, Shannon, that told me when she’d arrive, I almost replied with something like, “drive safe” or “safe travels.” I decided not to in the end. She was coming to town for a visit. She lives in Nelson but moved for the summer to go fight forest fires. She’s been stationed in Salmon Arm, a town about 350km (217mi) northwest of here.

I’ve always been the kind of person to end a conversation with some sort of kind farewell, wishing them good luck or safety. I don’t know why, but this particular time I caught myself and questioned why I do that. Why we do that. On the surface it just seems like a nice gesture. But it also reminded me of the time I was with my wife, how I always had to have the last say when we parted.

Like if I didn’t say something and something terrible happened it would somehow be my fault. I guess for me, in a way, it’s insurance against feeling guilt down the road. In reality, of course, nothing I say is going to make them any safer.

So if that’s true, I started wondering if it could actually have a negative effect. Like, that person would start questioning what they would never have questioned had it not been said. “Drive safe? Why wouldn’t I?”


Neurologist/psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, was a Holocaust survivor who spent almost three years in Nazi concentration camps. His observations — of how he and his fellow prisoners reacted under certain circumstances — reinforced his theories of the human condition.

Hyper-intention: forced intention toward some end which makes that end unattainable.

His big theory, logotherapy, is particularly interesting. Within it he describes a form of anxiety, what he calls hyper-intention, and which Wikipedia describes as “forced intention toward some end which makes that end unattainable.” An example of this is someone who has trouble sleeping. The thought is that the harder you try to fall asleep, the more likely you are to not fall asleep.

His cure — what he called paradoxical intention — would then be to tell his patient to do the opposite: try to stay awake as long as possible. In doing so, they would inevitably fall asleep. Another example is someone who sweats profusely. If, at a party, he tried not to sweat (perhaps repeating to himself, “don’t sweat, don’t sweat”) he would, of course, sweat.

According to Frankl’s paradoxical intention therapy, the man should try really hard to sweat. In trying so hard to sweat, he would actually fail.

Have a safe trip!

So what if we applied this to someone about to embark on a road trip? Could planting “drive safe” into their minds actually have the opposite effect? Where they apply hyper-intention to driving safe and they end up not?

Perhaps it could also be looked at in a superstitious light (although superstition and intention may be much closer related than we think). In the theatre world, actors wish each other “break a leg” before a performance. “Good luck” is bad luck. Or maybe this is just another version of hyper-intention, where the actor becomes so focused on “having good luck” that bad things happen.

We should be careful with the seeds we plant, even when well-intentioned. We never know what can blossom.

Do you wish people safe travels or like it when people say it to you?

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About The Author

Carlo Alcos

Carlo is the Dean of Education at MatadorU and a Managing Editor at Matador. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.

  • Jason Montgomery

    I enjoy the exploration of habitual conversation more than most people, so your article was a great reminder that too much of our lives are automated.  I don’t want to steal any thunder from your argument, I just want to add my take. 
    In my experience, humans have three creative powers; thought speech and action.   To me, the ultimate success or failure of achieving our desired consequence depends more on intention and less on the actual thoughts or words said.  If I wish you safe travels while picturing you arriving safe and sound at your destination, I can’t see the universe bending this into its opposite.  If, however, I’m picturing a plane crash and just wishing against it, then you may well be correct.  My solution would be to have in your heart a very clear intent before your salutation.  Thanks for your insight!

    • Guest

      So you’re basically saying that you have the power to cause change by thinking about it (and I mean in a very direct way, not in the “first step on the way to action is to image the outcome, and then you do planning, etc.”)?

      • Carlo Alcos

        I believe we can manifest things with intention, as long as it is pure.

        • Guest

          This is a vague statement. What is a very specific example of that, using regular, even mundane everyday items, or concepts?

  • Amy Schaaf Schiele

    Is it credible to cite Wikipedia now?

    • Carlo Alcos

      I don’t see why not. Is it more credible to cite newspapers owned by corporations? Crowdsourcing is where it’s at. Haven’t you heard?

      • Guest

        Newspapers are also prone to bias, but at least you know to expect it there. With WIkipedia, you describe it as crowdsourcing, as if it really is some collective hive mind, but while it has many contributors, in the end, for certain topics in particualar there’s as much bias as is elsewhere. It’s just presented like it’s an attempt at objectivity. You can’t vote on facts, yet this is exactly what happens there.  Crowds, with all due respect, are not bias free. Especially, if you have large populaces casting votes on controversial topics. Democracy doesn’t work for facts.

        • Carlo Alcos

          So what are “facts” then?

          • Guest

            I don’t know about “facts”, but facts are things that are not a matter of opinion. For example, the device that I’m using right now is called a computer in English. This computer requires electricity to work. Things like that are absolute truths and their veracity does not really depend on one’s worldview, even if that world view itself makes one believe that everything (which would include the simple examples I’m using here) is subjective.

  • Rajasthan Tours Operator

    its a very nice post i like it

  • Simply Tia

    I say safe travels or drive safely. What is to be will be.  I don’t think the way I word my good intentions will have a bad effect on a person

  • Max Thomson

    Similar to the old mother’s phrase of “Don’t hurt yourself”….jee, great  advice Mother

  • Jordan

    Perhaps – but I think most people (at least I do) say it to let the person know that I care about them and I want them to get to their destination safely. I do not believe that they would be safe or make poor decisions, but I want them to know that they mean something to me.

  • Maria V. Munoz

    Why wish someone safety for anything? We are living in the safest time in history. Why worry? Why not wish them a good or happy time? Why bring them down with the thought that something could go wrong? I observe that the people who wish for safety tend to be pessimists or worry worts. Their wishes for safety are really just projections of their own worries rather than a pleasant thought for someone else. How do I know? Because no one intends to drive unsafely or do anything that would cause themselves harm (except those who are suicidal.) It is more of a school marm attitude not a peaceful, joyful and loving attitude. We should call people on this when they say such things. We may be able to help them see their negativism and hopefully change it.

  • Anonymous

    It may be true that if a dentist says it won´t hurt or when you say to child you don´t have to be afraid they will go psycho.
    Also Mr. Frankl may have not so favorable memories when the SS said to him don´t worry.
    But wishing somebody a safe trip is plain goodwill and should be left at that.
    You can overanalyze everything. As Sigmund Freud said: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • Hernan

    I think is selfish. You say something nice to me like “safe travels” before boarding a plane, and for the next 3 or 4 hrs I’m aware that something might go wrong, especially in a flight, were you can do nothing to travel safer… I hate it, it just make me unnecessarily worried.

I only wonder what the guy who asked for just socks and underwear was thinking after it...
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