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Why 'Safe Travels' Might Have the Opposite Effect

by Carlo Alcos Aug 24, 2011
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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