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Centipede's Dilemma

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"If I try to think about how it works, it doesn't work."

A trope named for the folk tale poem about a centipede who had no trouble walking until asked how he managed all those legs. He started thinking about the process and immediately became unable to do it anymore. In psychology the effect is known as as "hyper-reflection" or "Humphrey's law" after psychologist George Humphrey who wrote about the poem's profoundness in 1923.

Often encountered during the Bizarre and Improbable Golf Game, when one player attempts to induce a dilemma in his (usually winning) opponent by asking, "Do you breathe in or out on the backswing?" That said, this can show up in any context featuring a complex activity that requires one "get into the flow".

The trope is sufficiently well-known that sometimes the writer will just have someone comment, "Oh, he's got Centipede's Dilemma," or the like, rather than actually explaining what the problem is when Mr. Awesome starts messing up.


If this is attempted on a group of people simultaneously, it may lead into someone biting into the Apple of Discord.

Compare with Achievements in Ignorance; Acting Unnatural; Damn You, Muscle Memory!; Don't Think, Feel; Magnum Opus Dissonance; Paralysis by Analysis; Performance Anxiety; Puff of Logic; You Were Trying Too Hard; Thought-Aversion Failure; Reminder of Impossibility; and There Is No Try.

Should not be confused with The Human Centipede. Or even with the Creepy Centipedes, which are much more likely to give you a dilemma.

Warning! Reading the examples below may cause you to have similar problems.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Detective Conan:
    • An Asshole Victim ruined the career of a promising young pitcher by (falsely) claiming that there was something wrong with his pitch, after which the poor kid destroyed his own shoulder trying to figure out what was wrong.
    • Another victim died when her murderer induced semantic satiation on the word containing her last name, and then asked her to sign an important contract. (The poison was carefully applied to the edges of the dictionary that the victim would touch upon looking up the word.)
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: People who get automail limbs have to relearn how to use those limbs and get used to things like not having any tactile sensation in them. Ed is shown going through this in a few flashbacks, and Paninya explicitly says that she pretty much had to learn how to walk all over again. Truth in Television; people with prosthetics go through those exact issues and it can take years to fully adjust.
  • My Hero Academia:
    • While training under an Old Master, Izuku Midoriya has an epiphany that makes him realize that a lot of the issues he's had with controlling the Super Strength of his Quirk One For All stemmed from this trope. Having grown up Quirkless and gaining One For All as a teenager, he viewed his power as Too Awesome to Use while his classmates have had their powers since kindergarten and use them as naturally as they breathe.
    • That Old Master also mentally notes that this is an issue with All Might and his instruction of Midoriya in One For All's use. All Might took to One For All far more easily than Midoriya did, and it shows in how he trains his student. The use of One For All came so naturally to All Might that his explanations to Midoriya are generally vague and less useful than they should be because he doesn't realize it isn't coming very naturally to Midoriya.

    Comic Books 
  • In one Archie Comics story, Jughead beats Reggie at bowling by tricking him into actually focusing on the mechanics of play (e.g. how many steps he takes during windup, the ergonomics of the bowling ball) instead of just playing.
  • In Cerebus the Aardvark, the title aardvark tries to win a ball game using this trope, asking if he breathes in or out when tossing the ball. Cut to panel of his panicked partner contemplating it. Cut to panel showing said partner having won and saying, "I breathe out!"
  • In an The Inferior Five comic that parodied the X-Men, the equivalent of Archangel is shown wearing a sweater. Naturally, one of the Five asks him how he puts on a sweater over his wings. The poor mutant loses it because, now that he's thought about it, he'll never be able to do it again.
  • In one Tintin story, The Red Sea Sharks, Captain Haddock is unable to sleep after Allan mockingly asks him if he sleeps with his beard under or above the covers. This ends up saving his life and those of everyone on the ship. (Captain Haddock is shown to sleep on his stomach in Tintin and the Picaros.)
  • Wonder Woman:
    • Wonder Woman (1942): Gail Young's telepathy starts to break down the more she thinks about it, which is why she wears a blindfold or closes her eyes to concentrate to in order to cut down on even more distractions and explains why she didn't realize Cheetah was lying to her face while badgering her into using her telepathy to spy for her.
    • Wonder Woman (1987): Cassie's first few outing with Hermes' flying sandals work out great, until she goes for a practice flight and starts questioning how they work which also causes her to fear falling from her incredible height which causes the things to stop functioning until she stops overthinking things. She only survives because she's accompanied by an adult with impressive innate Not Quite Flight abilities. She gets the hang of using them just by instinct pretty quick, and shortly thereafter her power limiters are removed which allows her to fly without them.

    Comic Strips 
  • Beetle Bailey: What do you do with your arms when you're walking? Mort Walker was nice enough to show a character walking before thinking about this and swinging them in the opposite order from how he moved his legs so that the reader didn't have to face the puzzle.
  • Dilbert:
    • Bored, Dilbert contemplates the connection between his mind and body and forgets how to move.
      Pointy-Haired Boss: The problem with engineers is that they don't idle well.
    • Parodied with another series where Dilbert loses the connection between effort and reward and realizes that he still gets paid if he stands around flicking his fingers. Eventually the entire office is doing it, and the boss thinks to himself "I don't know what success sounds like, but I don't think this is it."
    • Also happens to Ratbert once when Dogbert muses on how we unconsciously manage incredibly complex nervous signals to move our muscles; stopping to think about it, he immediately goes into a spasming fit as a Funny Background Event.
  • Garfield:
    • There's a strip where Jon asks Garfield which way he puts his feet down when he walked. Garfield is then paralyzed.
    • In "The Me Book", Garfield suggests an extremely subtle version for ruining someone's golf swing, in which he instructs the reader to tell the golfer, "Think about your right hip."
  • Peanuts:
    Linus: I'm aware of my tongue ... It's an awful feeling! Every now and then I become aware that I have a tongue inside my mouth, and then it starts to feel lumped up... I can't help it... I can't put it out of my mind.... I keep thinking about where my tongue would be if I weren't thinking about it, and then I can feel it sort of pressing against my teeth..."
    • Similarly, in a storyline Linus is asked how he tied his shoes, and he has to go barefoot for the rest of the week.

    Fan Works 
  • In Amazing Fantasy, Izuku's neuroticism hampers his attempts to learn how to use his web-shooters, missing by a longshot after spending several seconds trying to aim at a still target. Once he stops worrying about the minute details and goes with the flow, he finds that both web-slinging and web-swinging come to him more naturally.
  • In Guardian, Yuna subconsciously walks on water, demonstrating Summoner talent, but she falls in once she realizes the others are watching.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: Harry refuses to share the secret behind the Patronus V.2, because it is unlikely that the majority of people would be able to reach the mental state necessary, and attempting it could destroy their own ability to cast normal Patronuses.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In Chapter 8 of the fanfic It Takes a Village Spike finally figures out how to fly. He immediately makes it clear that no-one is to ask him how he managed it, otherwise he might forget.
    • In the second chapter of A Delicate Balance, after Twilight Sparkle realizes that she has a crush on Applejack, she makes a determined effort to act as normal as possible around her, and fails precisely because she's thinking too hard about what she should be doing. Another scene has a distracted Twilight pick up a cup with her hooves rather than with her telekinesis. She manages just fine until she realizes that she's holding it that way, at which point she promptly spills it.
  • This Bites!: Merry warns Sanji that he'll get a unholy beating from her if the Bags Of Holding that connect to her hold stop working because he asked her how it worked.
  • In Of Quirks and Magic, Izuku struggles to take his first steps to learn magic because he's constantly trying to control it rather than letting it flow through him. He only gets even more frustrated when Strange tries to teach him with a river metaphor and that the best way to control magic was to surrender control of it. To prove his point, Strange decides to lock Izuku in an infinitely long hallway flooded with water, forcing him to surrender control to make a portal or drown trying.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Kung Fu Panda, Po is utterly incapable of performing any kind of kung fu. He can, however, punch through doors and do perfect splits while trying to get food. Fitting the original usage of the trope, the moment it's pointed out to him he's ten feet off the ground he falls flat on his face.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Bull Durham, the hot young pitcher has no control when he thinks about what he's doing, and his catcher exploits this, goading him into throwing a fastball right at his chest from five feet away, and he misses. His girlfriend makes him wear garters under his uniform, and he's so twisted around thinking about how uncomfortable he is that he pitches beautifully.
  • Cimarron: The newspaper printer Ricky has a stutter which improves over the course of the film. Towards the end, a character compliments Ricky for not stuttering so much as he used to. Ricky's stutter immediately returns.
    Ricky: Oh, w-w-what'd you have to bring it up for?
  • In The King's Speech, Lionel Logue points out that this is Bertie's problem (though it's a significant problem and not easily surmounted) by having him recorded reading Hamlet while listening to music that make it impossible for him to hear himself. It's not until much later, after getting drunk and dismissing Logue as a crackpot, that Bertie listens to the recording... and hears himself speaking without a stutter for the first time in his life.
  • Referenced in The Last Samurai. Nathan Algren's fights training fights always end quickly (and with him sporting a fresh bruise), until Nobutada explains that Algren has "too many mind — mind the sword, mind the people watching, mind your enemy. Too many mind. No mind." Notable in that this is legitimate advice and something many martial arts schools teach. It does, indeed, work like a charm, but you're far more likely to hit your sparring partner harder than you should.
  • In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Watson uses this to find Moriarty’s assassin in the climax; the guy has spent so much time perfecting his disguise as a partygoer that the acting comes naturally to him... until Watson does something completely random (knocking a bunch of drinks to the floor for no reason). With his rigid script broken, the assassin has to actually think about a response on the fly and promptly freezes up, allowing Watson to identify him.

  • One joke that comes up sometimes on the internet is to simply write "You are now breathing manually." (or blinking, reading, listening — anything the reader is expected to be doing at the moment), which actually makes some people stop to reorganize their thoughts.
  • Another joke is about a college student asking his bearded professor if he sleeps with his beard above or below the covers. The professor shrugs and says he has never thought about it. The next day, the professor comes to class with bloodshot, baggy eyes and grabs the student: "What the hell did you do to me? Now I can't sleep. It's uncomfortable either way."
  • A similar one to both previously mentioned is the popular "You are now aware that your tongue does not rest comfortably in your mouth". Now take a few minutes to forget that statement.
  • A subatomic particle is driving a car down the highway, when a cop pulls them over. The cop walks up to the car and asks, "Excuse me, do you know you were driving at 90 miles per hour?" The particle responds, "Oh great, now I'm lost!"

  • In The Baby-Sitters Club book "Mallory Hates Boys (and Gym)", when Mal's name is called to be on one of the volleyball teams and she starts jogging over to her teammates she suddenly becomes very conscious of her arms.
  • There is a French story called "La Barbe", where everyone asks a man with a long beard how he sleeps with his beard. In an attempt to answer the question, that night he tries many different sleeping positions, and is unable to get to sleep. The next day, he gets his beard shaved off.
  • One of the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon stories by Spider Robinson is actually titled "The Centipede's Dilemma". In it, a character with a dangerous psychic ability is defeated and rendered powerless by using this technique.
  • Discworld: Referenced in A Hat Full of Sky. Miss Level once had this trope described to her by an acrobat: "Never ask the tightrope walker how he keeps his balance. If he stops to think about it, he falls off." This principle helped her out later on. This was proven on a Derren Brown show, where he asked an experienced tightrope walker stuff like that, and repeatedly told him not to fall off. Guess what happened next.
  • In The Dresden Files book Ghost Story, a newly-formed ghost (Harry) is in a car when a comment from Mortimer Lindquist makes him realize there is a logical flaw in the fact that he can walk through walls, but is sitting here in a car. Before he can even complete the thought, he's fallen through the bottom of the car. A more experienced ghost drags him back up and explains this trope.
  • In The Elenium, by David Eddings, Sephrenia, a Styric, steadfastly refuses to learn to read the Ehlene language at all. When one of the Ehlenes asks her why, since being able to read the language would make some things much easier for her, she replies that to learn to read Ehlene, she would need to learn to think in it as well, and she doesn't want to risk that she would then at some point have to stop and remember how to think in Styric when she needs to.
  • The First Men in the Moon begins with Bradford's attempts to write a novel being confounded by Cavor — who keeps walking past his house, shaking his shoulders and making strange noises to himself. Bradford confronts Cavor over it, and Cavor confesses that he's a scientist and that he finds his daily walk to be the best time for thinking about his research — and he's so engrossed in his thoughts that he had never noticed that he was acting so outwardly strange. About a week later, Cavor confronts Bradford—he hasn't been able to make any progress on his research in the past week, because every time he goes out for a walk he's too focused on the walking to get any thinking done. When Bradford offers to help with his research, Cavor brightens up, and as he walks back to his house, he begins shaking and making noises in his old manner.
  • In Walter Brooks's Freddy the Pig series, at one point a beetle came to Freddy saying he couldn't walk anymore, since every time he tried he got distracted by where his legs were and tripped. Freddy had him stare at the ceiling while he walked, and it worked.
  • Stephen Potter's satirical how-to-win-at-games-without-being-able-to-play-them book Gamesmanship lists breaking your opponent's flow in this manner as a fundamental technique, explicitly stating "CONSCIOUS FLOW IS BROKEN FLOW" as being "Rule 1".
  • Harry Potter:
    • In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets we learn that, when interacting with snakes, Harry has been speaking to them via Parseltongue without realizing it. Later, when he needs to use it without a real snake around to trigger it, he has a much harder time doing so.
    • Later, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore takes Harry to view a memory involving a family called the Gaunts. Harry fails to realize the Gaunts speak in Parseltongue until it's pointed out to him.
  • The Heroes of Olympus: In book one, Leo Valdez, as a son of Hephaestus, has the ability to operate any piece of machinery. When he needs to fly a helicopter, he is explicitly described as going back-and-forth between doing things right without thinking about them and doing things wrong by thinking about them.
  • In the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series it is possible to fly, as long as you don't think about the fact that you're flying. It's not terribly hard — all you have to do is throw yourself at the ground and miss. (The only way to miss is to distract yourself, somehow, right in the instant before you hit the ground.) Once flying, though, it becomes vitally important not to let yourself become aware of the impossibility of the act, e.g. through a passer-by helpfully pointing this out, because they will be proved suddenly and painfully correct.
  • In The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, only those who enter the wardrobe when they're not looking for Narnia actually wind up there.
  • In the Modesty Blaise novel I, Lucifer, Lucifer has no martial training, but is able to defeat Modesty in single combat because he can instinctively see what she's about to do and always has the counter ready. In the rematch, Modesty trips him up by getting him to consciously think about how he's predicting her moves, which stops him doing it effectively.
  • Referenced in No Country for Old Men. The narrator recalls a ballplayer saying that if he had a slight injury nagging at him, his game generally improved, as it kept his mind focused on one thing instead of a hundred.
  • In the Paradox Trilogy, Devi is able to subconsciously resist Evelyn's plasmex telekinesis until Evelyn points out to her that she's resisting. This causes Devi to realize that she doesn't know exactly how she's resisting it, which makes her resistance immediately fail.
  • In the Revenge of the Sith novelization, Anakin is dominating in his duel against Count Dooku until Dooku realizes that Anakin is unconsciously calling on The Dark Side. Dooku taunts Anakin over the anger in his heart and his fear of said anger, causing Anakin to worry about controlling his anger, ruining his ability to fight. He's even compared to the Corellian multipede.
  • Jamie Lannister encounters this due to a case of Damn You, Muscle Memory! in A Song of Ice and Fire after the loss of his right hand forces Jamie to have to learn to fight all over again and he finds himself having to think about his every action.
  • Hilaire Belloc's poem The Water Beetle describes the same effect on the pond skating creature, who would immediately sink if he stopped to think how he does it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 30 Rock:
    • Kenneth tries to ask Liz a question, but she is in a hurry so he responds "Can you walk and talk at the same time?" Kenneth: "Well, normally I can, but now you've got me thinking about it" and he immediately starts staggering and slurring his words for a few paces.
    • Jack in "Jack-Tor", who forgets how to walk, hold his arms, or enunciate words when the camera is on him.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine: At a shooting range, Terry, who hasn't shot a gun since he relegated himself to a desk job, becomes frustrated with Gina and shoots seven shots with no problem. When Holt and Gina reveal that the real reason they're there is to get him recertified and that he just needs one more shot to get his license back, he starts freaking out and can't bring himself to shoot the last one.
    Jeffords: Guys! I forgot how to breathe! Is it two-in one-out?
  • In Community, when Jeff becomes a law teacher, he spends a lot of time confused about what he's supposed to do and is unable to actually teach, falling back on lazy excuse assignments to give his students. After his students watch him successfully Logic Bomb Annie with her own thought process, they ask him how he managed to pull that off and he winds up accidentally teaching a lecture on how to win an argument in that manner.
  • Cliff discusses this on an episode of The Cosby Show when Clair breaks her toe and is holding her cane in the wrong hand. He demonstrates how people naturally walk and how awkward it would be for her if she didn't switch hands.
    Cliff: If you hold the cane in this hand, you become like the movie The Walk of the Drunken Mummy.
  • In Family Matters, this happened as Carl was trying to teach Steve how to swim. Steve actually began to do really well... that is until Carl pointed out that he was in the deep end. This did, however cause Carl to realize that Steve simply needed not to think about what he was doing, so he had Laura fall in and pretend to be drowning. Steve jumped in and tried to rescue her.
  • In Little Mosque on the Prairie, Sarah spends all day accidentally insulting people after Fatima asks her how she always knows the right thing to say.
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "A Case of the Yips", Murdoch briefly becomes obsessed with golf, and invents a machine that should train someone for the perfect swing. It doesn't help him, and ruins the game of the club champion. Then Dr Ogden performs a perfect drive and, when asked if she was focusing on the ball or the club, says she wasn't really thinking about anything. This advice saves the champion, but the cerebral Murdoch finds it impossible to follow, and the episode ends with him throwing his clubs in the lake.
  • In Parks and Recreation, Leslie tries to affect a laid-back stance while at a campaign stop. Ann suggests that she just stand like she normally does; however, this causes Leslie to forget how to stand altogether.
  • In The Young Ones, after some incredibly mean-spirited negative vibe-merchant boards Neil's bedroom up, meaning he can't get to his wardrobe, Neil is forced to protect his modesty using a plant pot. The plant pot incredibly manages to stay on without any visible means of support...until Rik asks him how he's keeping the plant pot on?

  • The Scottish folksong of "The Wee Kirkcudbright Centipede" who is an incredible dancer until someone asks her to demonstrate her dance step-by-step. She basically ties her legs together.
  • Q-Tip's lyrics in "Galvanize" by The Chemical Brothers reference this:
    If you think about it too much, you may stumble trip up,
    Fall on your face
    (Don't hold back!)

    Myths & Religion 
  • Older Than Feudalism: The Gospels of John, Matthew, and Mark give accounts of Jesus walking on water. Peter is initially able to do so as well, but starts sinking once he begins to wonder how this could be possible, and think about the waves and the wind. The point is that Peter only falters when he takes his focus off Jesus and begins to worry about other things.
  • This is the whole point of, oh, all of ancient Greek esotericism, and therefore of half their myths. Hesychastic union with the divine, or the noetic experience of the Monad, ceases once you begin having discursive ("dianetic"note ) thought about it. Hence the Orpheus myth: the moment he looks to see if Eurydice is there, she vanishes back to the realm of the dead.
  • The term comes from an 1800s poem by Catherine Craster, but the Zhuangzi (3rd century BCE) features a near-identical story. Here, a being with one foot asks a millipede how it can walk with all those legs. The millipede responds that it doesn't think about it, simply 'setting my heavenly impulse into action'. This is consistent with the "do what comes naturally, don't expend unnecessary effort" philosophy of Daoism.
  • Some examples of The Fair Folk are able to do seemingly impossible feats out of believing they can (like breathing underwater or using the wind as solid ground), but when pointed out what they are doing is impossible, they will immediately fail. This overlaps into Achievements in Ignorance.

  • In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Mirielle's superpower allows her to visualise the relationships between people as strings that she can then interact with. However, this causes her to frequently trip over them. She realises that she can avoid this by not thinking about them, thus not causing them to physically manifest... but trying not to think about the strings naturally leads to her thinking about them.

    Video Games 
  • A lot of games, especially songs with weird rhythms in Rhythm Games can be easy for an experienced player until they actually try to break down exactly what they are doing. Similar to how a player doing extremely well starts faltering once they realized it.
    • It works the other way as well. As a beginning player, you haven't developed the muscle memory to know more than a few basic actions common to the genre. Because of this, you focus more on what button to press for the desired action until you gain more experience so that you don't focus anymore.
    • Players of Hack and Slash games such as God of War or Bayonetta can often find themselves succumbing to this, realizing very quickly that oftentimes concentrating on the exact timing of dodges, attacks and blocks is much easier to stumble over than when they fall into a more intuitive groove of things.
    • Bullet Hell shooters and timed puzzle games can be the same way.
  • For some particular reason, in a game where two or more players are fixed to a side of the screen, it's jarring for a player who's used to one side to have to use another. In most situations, there's no practical difference.
  • Invoked in-universe in Divine Divinity. The Player Character encounters a pair of skeletal mooks discussing the inherent Fridge Logic of their design, like how they really shouldn't be able to speak, walk, or even stay assembled without any muscle mass, skin, tendons, or internal organs. It eventually causes them to fall to pieces.
    Skeleton: Best not to think about it. I don't want to fall to bits 'cos of excessive existential thought. Nasty...
  • Invoked by Yuna in Final Fantasy X. At the Farplane, Yuna tells Tidus to think about his father, Jecht, to see whether or not Jecht is still alive. As Tidus himself notes in his narration, trying not to think about Jecht, of course, makes Tidus think about him.
  • Jade Empire: Wonderfully referenced when you ask Kang how he manages to remotely pilot the Marvelous Dragonfly from the ground.
    "Well, it's much like the dilemma of the centipede. If he relaxes and lets things happen, he can walk naturally all day long, his hundred legs not missing a step. But, if he thinks too hard about the complexity of what he's doing, those legs might crash into the teahouse and kill everyone. A valuable lesson."
  • The player character of Kingdom of Loathing can exploit this when fighting a swarm of killer bees:
    "They start to swarm you, but you give them a quick lesson in Aerodynamics, and they all fall to the ground."
  • Near the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the game starts deconstructing itself as a mechanism for simulated emotional responses and player catharsis. An AI construct, in a lengthy radio conversation, spends ten minutes dissecting the postmodern condition, the player character's personality, and his role as a vehicle for the player. The player is left to wonder what the point of fighting is if he's just being manipulated by the game and its fictional stakes.
  • Parodied in Poker Night 2 when Sam asks Claptrap how he balances on one wheel. Claptrap starts wobbling and panicking...and then laughs, explaining he's got "More gyroscopes than the Hubble."
  • This concept underlies the flash game QWOP, in which the player controls his character's legs with a keyboard. This makes the action of running, or even walking, almost impossible, despite it being second nature in real life. This is part because the game has four commands that denote movement of each thigh and each lower leg individually to move. Until you develop a rhythm instead of trying to conceptualize coordinating these movements in relation to each other, you will keep getting out of sync.
    • The trope is, in fact, the basis for an entire genre of QWOP-like games such as Surgeon Simulator 2013, Octodad and Manual Samuel, which purposefully overcomplicate basic movement by forcing the player to consider motor functions that would otherwise be handled completely subconsciously in real-life, and automatically in other video games.
  • Death Blow of Abernanit, an in-universe poem from The Elder Scrolls franchise, ends with a duel between the heroes Rangidil and Dagoth Thras. Throughout the fight, Thras puts up an almost perfect defence, effortlessly deflecting every attack Rangidil tries to land, and plans to exhaust Rangidil in order to make him an easy kill. When Rangadil asks how he became so good with a shield, Thras hesitates for a moment and realises he can't put his skills into words, and Rangidil, sensing a moment of confusion, finally manages to land a killing blow.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of Beavis and Butt-Head has the boys forget how to urinate after thinking too hard about how to do it.
  • Bob's Burgers: In "The Fresh Princ-ipal", Teddy begins asking Bob how he is able to flip burgers so well, causing Bob to immediately screw up once he starts thinking about it.
  • In Doug, Doug needs to talk to Chalky after being accused of cheating off him on a test, but Chalky is in the middle of track practice, and Doug is desperately trying to keep up with him, jumping over every hurdle along side him. After the second hurdle, Chalky comments, "Hey, you're pretty good, Doug!" That's when Doug realizes what he's doing and trips over the next hurdle.
    • In another episode, Judy flunks her driver's test because she has trouble parallel parking. While they're out driving, Doug tries to encourage her to practice and try again. Finally he reveals the reason why. He had promised Patti that she could drive them to Bumper Car Mania that weekend. Upon hearing this, Judy becomes enraged, and starts chewing out Doug, during which time she successfully pulls off a parallel parking job. She doesn't even realize it until Doug points it out to her. Turns out she just had to not really think about it.
  • A Credits Gag in an episode of Fish Hooks has Snake reading a book on animals and come to the point where it says animals don't talk. When she points it out to Mouse, they suddenly lose this ability.
  • A Running Gag in Looney Tunes is that a character can run (pun not intended) across water or even air just fine, as long as somebody else doesn't point them at this fact.
    • Lampshaded at least once in Tiny Toon Adventures — they can walk on air across a canyon as long as they don't look down.
    • Also played with in an episode where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd meet as small children. Elmer runs off a cliff, and Bugs tries to make him fall by pointing out that gravity should pull him down. It doesn't work, because Elmer is just a little kid and hasn't learned what gravity is yet. Bugs is later kind enough to provide him with a definition.
  • When Skull Boy loses his lucky charm on the eve of a quiz game championship in Ruby Gloom, he finds it impossible to answer even the simplest questions. What falls into this trope is that throughout the second half of the episode Ruby offhandedly asks him questions several times that he answers without thinking, only to fall apart when this is pointed out to him.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • "Pickles" has SpongeBob forgetting how to "assemble" a Krabby Patty after a rival (falsely) tells him he forgot the pickles; exaggerated in that he becomes so confused and nervous that he can't do ANYTHING right. It comes to a point where he tells Mr. Krabs that he cannot do it while saying the steps, then realizing he did just that.
    • When Squidward repeatedly fails to win anything from a crane machine in "Skill Crane", he becomes so obsessed with it that any activity that involves picking something up, like a glass, became impossible for him to do.
  • In the 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mikey tries to fight without thinking (he's normally a natural), only to discover he can't, as he winds up "thinking about not thinking".
  • Futurama: Leela has issues with depth perception, but only if someone's just asked her how she can perceive depth with only one eye.
  • In one episode of The Flintstones, when the Flintstones and Rubbles went out, Barney took Fred out to a skating rink, with the latter stating he didn't know how to skate. After Barney quipped that Fred needed to go on a diet, Fred angrily chased him across the rink. Barney then called attention to Fred skating, causing him to realize what he was doing, resulting in him falling down and crashing into a wall.
    Fred: (To Barney) You had to open your big mouth.

    Real Life 
  • In military, the Close Order Drill, "square bashing", originates in overcoming this issue. Making the movements automatic and instinct in the muscle memory creates the basis of action on battlefield.
    • Learning "Drill and Ceremony" (D&C) in the military is an example. Teaching a soldier how to march makes them consciously think about how their arms and legs move during what is, essentially, "precision walking". Many recruits, when first instructed to swing the opposite arm forward with each step, overthink it so much that they will initially swing the arm of the same side with each step, resulting in a frankly hilarious and incredibly unnatural looking stride. It literally takes weeks to learn how to march to the proper cadence. Not to mention a multitude of other skills in the military, such as firing a weapon, or disassembling and reassembling equipment for maintenance and/or repair. Particularly important if you need to fire, disassemble, and reassemble your weapon in the midst of combat (such as when needing to clear a misfire from your weapon). Also note that you may need to do this, and any other important tasks, while also dealing with the mother of all fight-or-flight-induced adrenaline surges.
    • In the Finnish Army, the conscripts are taught first to disassemble and reassemble the service weapon normally, then behind one's back but eyes open, then blindfolded, and finally behind one's back and blindfolded (blindfolding one's eyes does affect muscle coordination and balance). The nimblest can perform it under 30 seconds with the RK 62 assault rifle.
  • "Many things — such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly — are done worst when we try hardest to do them." — C. S. Lewis.
  • As a general rule, any situation where a person's pulse needs to be taken is also a situation where breathing rate needs to be taken. Since breathing rate is under direct conscious control, the proper procedure is to count breaths and take the pulse simultaneously, and never mention breathing to avoid this trope. And now you know. Hey, we warned you. Somewhat related is white coat hypertension, wherein some people's blood pressures elevate reflexively when intimidated by the idea of medical examinations.
  • Riding a bike is probably the most famous example: practically everyone learns to ride a bicycle by having their instructor secretly let go of the handlebars so they'll continue riding along without thinking about it. If you try to worry about how the bike's staying upright, you're bound to lose your balance. Likewise, steering a two-wheeled vehicle requires briefly counter-steering (turning away from the intended direction) to get the bike to track into the turn. This is done automatically by new riders, but when trying to master leaning they often skip this step, keeping the bike from turning much no matter how much they lean.
    • A phenomenal demonstration of this is the 'backwards bicycle', originally created as a bit of a joke, which includes a gear between the fork and the handlebars that reverses the steering direction. I.e., turn the bars right to steer left and vice versa. It took a skilled bike rider months of daily practice to retrain his brain to operate it. Even better, this done, he then found himself unable to ride a normal bike. Though that came back after only a few minutes. Presumably if he kept switching back and forth he'd be fluently 'bilingual' with both bikes, able to ride either at will. Note that his young son, who was far less experienced at bike riding, picked it up much faster.
    • Just try riding a tricycle after always having ridden a bicycle. You'd think if anything was going to overturn, it'd be the two-wheeler, not the inherently stable three-wheeler. Nope. You have to consciously turn the handlebar (and moderate your speed). Now imagine consciously turning a bike handlebar when riding. Some makers are starting to offer trikes that lean into bends to make the experience closer to that of a bike.
  • Just about any time you realize you're performing a complex series of actions (e.g. a sequence of keystrokes) over and over again, you're likely to start thinking about how you're managing to do it so fast — and immediately screw it up or have to slow down. Some people have reported typing quickly when they felt they were typing slowly, and upon realizing that they typed quickly, they either couldn't type quickly anymore or couldn't type both quickly and precisely anymore.
  • Related to schrödinbugs: a computer bug that seems to disappear or change when observed.
  • Typing in general is like this. Anyone who can touch-type, or at least find their way around the keyboard with a decent degree of proficiency and speed, will 'know' how to find any given letter with their fingertips without looking at it or consciously even trying to locate it. Ask them where, say, the K key is, and they may well find it a whole heap harder.
  • Anyone who's learned to drive stick shift after first learning to drive on an automatic knows this trope intimately. All the complicated motions and checking of gauges and looking around that have become instinct fall apart with the addition of just one more thing to do. Nothing you internalized involved moving your left foot or paying attention to the RPMs, and that's enough. And people who drive stick and shift to automatics have to remember that they don't have to use their left foot. Also, the reason drivers from Britain to America, and similarly flipped countries, have trouble has less to do with switching sides and more relearning driving. Roundabouts for instance, making turns, even something like checking mirrors for traffic. Try parallel parking with a different side, or not punching a hole in the driver's door when you try to shift gear.
    • It also works in reverse, when you start thinking about what to do with your (now unused) left foot, although it's more a case of Damn You, Muscle Memory!.
  • Pianist Glenn Gould said this about his piano playing.
  • A mild version can be experienced by saying, reading, or thinking about a particular word too much (try all the uses of the word "pink" on the Pink Product Ploy page for a good example). After a certain number of repetitions the word itself will lose all meaning to you. Your brain still consciously knows it's a symbol for something, and know what that something is, but it feels like you're no longer using a word, but rather a really weird symbol that means the same thing. It is called semantic satiation.
  • There is a ploy in American football called "freezing the kicker" or "icing the kicker" which relies on this trope. When one team is lining up to kick a field goal, normally accomplished within a set period of time while a play-clock is ticking down, the opposing coach calls a meaningless time-out just before the play is about to start, to stop the clock and give the placekicker a minute or two to overthink his kick. In some studies this has been statistically shown to work on certain attempts, as kickers have a slightly lower success rate after being "frozen".
  • This is a major factor in professional athletes "choking" generally, and in fact can cause them to do so more often than amateurs.
    • On that note, Shaquille O'Neal's infamously poor free throw shooting. Throughout his career, Shaq was a decent-to-good free throw shooter in practice; in a game situation, with nothing going on around him and everybody in the stadium looking right at him, however, he couldn't deliver.
    • Also in basketball, the origin of the phrase "he was too open" when a player receives the ball with so much time to shoot before the defender arrives that he overthinks the shot and misses it.
    • This is also why, in Major League Baseball, if the pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, it is considered EXTREMELY dickish to point it out to him in the middle of the game. Now he's going to be thinking about it, and will probably choke.
      • Though trying not to make the pitcher aware of the continuing no-hitter usually entails the pitcher's teammates avoiding him like the plague while in the dugout after the fifth inning or so. One has to imagine that sitting on the bench when not pitching, only to notice that everyone else is huddled at the other end of the dugout, would alert pitchers who weren't already aware than they had a no-no going. So in deliberately trying not to bring up the situation to the pitcher, his teammates probably made the pitcher very aware of the situation.
    • This ESPN the Magazine article discusses this in analyzing pro golfers who sought to improve their game by changing their swing. In almost every instance, a promising, skilled golfer lost every bit of promise and skill the second he took a look at his swing.
    • An actual acknowledged medical condition known as "Yips", involuntary wrist spasms, is thought by some to be a form of this trope, and golfers are quite familiar with it since it tends to strike when they're trying to line up a putt. However, researchers suggest that it may be a neurological condition exacerbated by the performance anxiety common in sports.
    • A technique in platform and springboard diving known as "Dumb Diving," wherein the diver clears their mind the moment before starting their dive, rather than focusing on each individual move in the dive.
  • Sometimes people have this dilemma with sleeping. It happens when you're lying in bed, tired, but then you start thinking about sleep. Thus you become too conscious to relax. It'll happen sometimes when you need to be up earlier than usual the next day and try to force yourself into sleep. If you're told that you don't actually need to sleep, often you then fall asleep easily, as the stress and therefore the need to focus on the process is resolved.
    • A similar issue arises for those who are sleepy at work. It's all too easy to fall asleep on the job after trying to fight it, risking a literal rude awakening by a supervisor at best and causing a major workplace accident at worst. But trying to take a deliberate nap during an hour-long lunch break precisely so that the former scenario doesn't happen? It's easier to climb Mt. Everest.
    • Perhaps this is part of the criticism of sleep-tracking apps, devices, handwritten logs, and the like: they make you consciously think about the fact that you're going to sleep at a particular time and all the phases of them, resulting in a self-inflicted form of the Hawthorne effect.
    • This is one of the most difficult aspects of adapting to polyphasic sleeping, as the need to successfully fall asleep during extremely small windows of time knowing that you have to be up and moving again in 20 minutes is an easy thing to spend 20 minutes thinking about... but as soon as you're up and the pressure's off, the tiredness hits you. Luckily, after keeping this up for a couple weeks the process of napping at certain times becomes second nature and the pressure eases.
  • In German primary schools, the kids sometimes have to take grammar tests that involve conjugating verbs in their own language. Usually, they're able to get the verb forms right in their sleep, but when they're explicitly asked to compose, let's say, the second-person singular form after being taught how it's assembled from a verb stem and a suffix, some suddenly get it wrong even though it's their own mother tongue. Might occur in other languages as well.
    • For the same reason, foreign language classes now teach much less grammar than they used to — knowing the grammar too well often left people stuck and unable to speak.
  • The concept of "immersion" in fiction. Writers of escapist stories try their hardest not to draw their readers' attention to the fact they are reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game. Once viewers remember that they're watching fiction (usually due to bad writing like Said Bookisms, or something not making sense) their ability to escape into the story drops drastically. Some postmodernist writers and directors, like Bertolt Brecht and Hideo Kojima, deliberately invoke this trope to point out the downsides of escapism, by deliberately making the audience aware of the unconscious processes involved.
  • Try and do something simple like putting on a coat or tying your shoelaces while explaining every step carefully to an onlooker. Suddenly getting dressed has never been harder.
  • This is common for anyone with a prosthetic leg. They have to relearn how to walk and balance themselves as their body is used to doing it one way, and they are trying to mentally go through the steps. One of the most common ways to get around it was to literally distract the patient in his therapy after they had proven able to do all the motions required so that they stop thinking about it. It still usually takes a few weeks.
    • They also have to deal with the severely reduced tactile feedback from the skin and muscles that used to be there. You don't consciously notice, but your brain receives and processes literally thousands of sensations every second. When a person loses a significant part of their body, like a leg as stated above, those thousands of messages are basically replaced with "FILE NOT FOUND", so the brain has to create workarounds.
  • A variation on the above can happen after a trip to the dentist. You mostly can’t talk straight because you’re concentrating so much on deliberately moving the tongue and lips you can’t feel, but if you don’t think about it too hard, they’ll still generally do what they’re supposed to do and you’ll be surprisingly comprehensible.
  • Does this door open inwards or outwards?
  • A condition called spasmodic dysphonia causes the sufferer to be unable to speak in spontaneous conversation, though they can often still speak in routine ways such as singing, rhyme, recalled speech, or vocal reading; acts which circumvent the process of coming up with words.
  • Take up any martial art or combat sport and after becoming just a bit more skilled than a beginner, think about that perfect spinning backfist, left hook, or lunge. You are quite likely to fail the execution.
  • People rarely get scared of the dark until they realize they are in the dark. For example, if you wake up in the middle of the night to urinate, then remember that you're afraid of the dark, you'll run straight back to your room.
  • Something similar can happen to actors on stage. After so much rehearsing, your movements, facial expressions, gestures, and the lines you're speaking turn into muscle memory. The times you forget a line or an entrance are usually when you're thinking too much about what comes next.
    • Related to this, some autistic people may rehearse movements, facial expressions, dialogues, and gestures until they're pretty much automatic in order to come across as more "neurotypical"note . The final results of this effort may vary, but even if the "act" is unconvincing it can still always get worse if attention is brought to the flaws in the performance, as this makes them consciously aware of their behavior. Their attempts to avoid the flaws in their performance may lead to their act deteriorating (out of anxiety and overwhelm) until their movements are more akin to those of possessed marionettes.
    • Actors and public speakers have gone their entire lives not thinking for a second about what to do with their hands when they're talking and looking perfectly natural. Get them up on stage and they're suddenly struck by the compulsion to hide their hands in their pockets, and when told they can't do that (because it looks awkward) they spend the entire time thinking about their hands and not knowing what to do with them, generally coming up with a really strange posture that looks like they were frozen halfway through a "put up your dukes" manuver. In one of the Dilbert books, Scott Adams drew characters in a similarly unnatural posture and commented in the margins "People really do hold their arms like this when they're being mentored."
  • Marching band is the same way. Memorizing the 8 minute marching routine which varies step size and direction all the time and 8 minutes worth of music quickly becomes muscle memory and you don't have to think about what you're doing. But fall down, miss a step, or a note and suddenly you don't know what to do until you get out of your own way.
  • Next time you sign something, think about how you actually do your signature...
  • When running down stairs, do not suddenly think "Which foot goes next?" You will trip. And likely die.
  • The sworn mortal enemy of sufferers of obsessive thoughts (PTSD, OCD, etc) is indeed not the obsessions, but the brain that is obsessing in the first place. It's called "ironic processing", and what happens is the victim tries to not think about the obsession. So their brain reminds them not to think about it... by thinking about it. The more they try not to think about it, the more they end up thinking about it by their brain reminding them not to think about it. This trope is why the best thing for obsessive-thought-sufferers to do is distract themselves with something else entirely.
  • Even though humans don't have nearly as many legs as centipedes, we can suffer from the same problem. Next time you walk, try to think about how you walk, and especially how you look like when you walk. You will still be able to walk, but you'll likely do it more clumsily and awkwardly than before. It is a problem that many people have tried, especially when they were around someone of the opposite sex; they walk perfectly normally, but due to nervousness they think they look stupid, and the result is that they really end up walking in a stupid way.
  • In Australia, both English and American spelling is acceptable. Most people can just type without thinking, but if you think about it too hard, you forget how to spell words like colour (color? colour? COLOR?) entirely. It's worse if you try to think about how you spelt it in the past.
  • An alarming number of perfectly common-or-garden words, if you stop and actually think about them properly, can suddenly look really peculiar — to the extent that you might doubt your lifetime's acquired knowledge. That the English language, for one, is full of spelling and pronunciation quirks (even aside from the variations between different Anglophone countries) can make a word like 'mortgage' or 'choir' abruptly seem so odd it becomes impossible to believe your own ability to spell it. Or you may find there's certain words you're able to write perfectly fine, but nevertheless stumble over where to place the letters when you have to consciously type them in the correct order.
    • Proper nouns — personal names in particular — can suddenly look pretty weird, because they may derive from a variety of ancient linguistic roots and don't necessarily have anything else especially analogous to them in modern everyday language. Think for a minute about what exactly that 'h' is doing in the middle of the name John, for instance, and all of a sudden one of the most common and normal forenames in the English-speaking world becomes a minefield. (Perhaps unsurprising, in this context, is the number of times you can find non-native speakers on e.g. YouTube misspelling it 'Jhon'.)
  • A common issue with teaching anything physical, from sports to dance to martial arts. A student will often ask the teacher something they do not consciously think about ("Do you position your foot this way or that way?"); if the teacher is lucky, they can just run through the routine of whatever they're doing and let muscle memory answer. If they're unlucky, the fact that they're thinking about it will bias their actions and leave them unsure about which way is actually correct. Prudent students soon learn to simply ask the teacher to demonstrate whatever part of the routine they're having trouble with and watch for the answer, rather than directly asking about it.
  • This comes up whenever there are multiple ways to do the same task, like driving automatic or manual, mouse-clicking versus keybinding in MMOs, etc. Proponents of both will claim whichever they learned first is superior because that's how they learned. They will also claim the other way is more awkward because they fall into this trope trying to do things differently from the way they are used to and don't want to give it the week or so of practice necessary to gain proficiency.
  • 5-time Jeopardy! winner Jerome Vered recounted how during his first game, he struggled to ring-in early on until realizing he was too worried about ringing-in. Once he stopped worrying and focused more on answering the questions, he began dominating the game.
  • Similar to the aforementioned golf tricks, fast pace card games such as Speed can involve psychological tactics to trip up other players. For example, questioning the legality of a play can cause the opponent to hesitate, wondering if they had played their cards in the right order and giving yourself an opportunity to respond.
  • In general, the harder one may think about a particular problem the less likely they are to think of the solution. After a while, simply when taking a nap or even a bathroom break, the solution will come to one's mind subconsciously.
  • Mistyped the PIN to your phone or bank account? Don't think about how two more incidents will lock you out permanently. Or where you probably mistyped. Or what your PIN even is. 4399 or 4398?
    • Even worse in some countries like Germany where you can't appoint your own bank PIN: locking yourself out of your bank account is fine - if you remember your PIN later or have it written down somewhere. If you don't, then the bank will take your card, destroy it and send you a new one with a new PIN which can take almost a week (since they send them separately). Worse, if your muscle memory returns and you suddenly remember your old PIN, but not the NEW one (and you're fucked, if your new one is very close to your old one, making mistyping a guarantee). There had been people that made it into boulevard magazines who were stuck in this dilemma until they cheated by having a fake phone number with the PIN in their contacts or similar.
  • Multiplication for young children. They usually at first only recite the tables before knowing them. So want to make them trip up and forget everything? Just mess with orders: 2x1? 2x2? 2x3? 5x6?
  • Modern fighter aircraft have intentional instability, which makes them respond faster to control inputs, thus becoming more maneuverable (there are other benefits as well). This means that they need to have a "smart", i.e. computer-assisted, control system that helps the pilot by translating his/her stick movements into the necessary control surface actuations. This works well as long as the pilot is able to remain relaxed about the aircraft not exactly responding to his/her input. If the pilot tries to force a maneuver against the control system's efforts it can break down very quickly and hard.
  • Making out or sexual intercourse can turn into an absolute minefield if one or both partners start overthinking what they're doing. There's a reason the most common advice one can receive when it comes to lovemaking is "just go with it" or some variation thereof; performance anxiety, societal pressure to be a good lover, and your partner's preferences all come roiling together into a horrendous hormonal bomb that you then have to try and defuse.
  • Ask an avid reader to read a kid's book out loud, and they're likely start sounding like they're incapable of reading. Experienced readers learn short cuts when reading to themselves, like skipping over words when they think they know what they will be or not bothering to figure out how to pronounce a complicated name, which work quite well reading alone, but which can't be done when reading out-loud. Of course once one notices that these methods don't work it's easy to get stuck thinking about what your're reading so much that you become even more prone to stumbling on words and generally sounding like you're still a beginning reader.
  • If you tell someone to forget about something, or to not think about it, the exact opposite will happen.

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Alternative Title(s): Analysis Paralysis


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