Second-order action slips

An action slip is when, due to a failure of attention, you accidentally perform an action out of context or out of sequence. For example, you pour milk on your toast or you forget to add the tea bag when making a cup of tea. Making action slips is common. Lately I have realised that I also make ‘second order’ action slips. These are where I perform the correct action, or the correct sequence of actions, but in the state of absent-mindedness whereby I might be more likely to make an action slip. I catch myself in the middle of some mundane and appropriate behaviour and with a start think to myself “Oh no what have I done!”. Usually this is during sudden, irreversable actions which would be bad if done out of context, such as urinating on things (ok for toilets, bad for most other things), getting into the shower and turning it on full (ok if clothes off, bad otherwise), pouring boiling water on things (ok for making hot drinks, bad for most foods, pets and family members). Of course with this kind of action I have, so far, always managed to do the right thing, but something about the consequences, and my lack of attention, causes a brief moment of panic. A chasm of intentional vertigo opens up as I ask myself exactly what I’m doing and how I know it is the right thing to do.

File under ‘perils of metacognition’?

3 replies on “Second-order action slips”

I suppose everyone does this, but it sounds very familiar to me. Your description is charming, and easy to identify with because it makes such blunder-prone people feel more like genial absent minded professors than simply half-conscious dunder-heads.

These ‘second order action slips’ you talk of are interesting occurrence. Perhaps we posses some kind of subconscious awareness of the of risk elicited by the current action being performed in the wrong context. therefore potentially serious mishaps, such as your delightful example of pouring the kettle on the family pet, are instinctively halted before potential disaster.

Another example of an attention lapse i sometimes experience which intrigues me is when i consciously plan to do something, such as get the keys from out of the drawer, but before doing so I am side-tracked by another task, lets say putting the milk back into the fridge. After putting the milk away however I then automatically walk over towards the draw, arrive and the draw and forget why the hell i am standing in front of it?!

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