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The wet paint syndrome


Bernie, a rather cheeky 16-year-old technical student presented one day as an emergency patient looking like one of those ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoon characters who had been the victim of an explosion gone wrong. He looked ‘shocked’ with charred clothing and blackened face and right forearm. He said he had been stupid enough to touch wires at a transformer station which warned ‘Danger: high tension wires-do not touch’. He was tempted to test them ‘to see if they were really serious’. He was fortunate to survive and sustained relatively minor physical injuries but he suffered from a depressive illness for at least 12 months.


Judy, a 45-year-old nurse, presented to me at the hospital staff clinic with a sprained wrist and injured ring finger following a fall while leaving a shopping centre. She was in a hurry, saw a sign that said ‘wet floor––cleaning in progress’, but kept scurrying along the slippery floor on her high heels. Crash bang! Her injuries healed but an ongoing drama revolved around her chronic swollen ring finger and saving the precious ring. This involved many reports, legal issues and costs over what was basically a straightforward problem. Despite attempts to be proactive and defuse the legal issues and also to remove the ring on first presentation using one of my ‘practice tips’ (suggestion rejected) the case did not go well for all concerned.


Robert, a 19-year-old apprentice plumber, presented with frequency and dysuria which was eventually proven to be chlamydial urethritis. He said that, despite his better judgement, he had visited a brothel while holidaying at a popular seaside resort. He was curious to find out ‘what it was like’. The symptoms tended to persist for some months despite negative pathology and I suspected he had a significant guilt reaction. He confided that it was not a pleasant experience and he was convinced that the prostitute was a male person.


  • These case studies are examples of the so called ‘wet paint syndrome’, which represents those furtive curiosity impulses which we give in to when we possibly think other people are not looking or when our innate curiosity is aroused by a sign telling us not to do something. Aaron Peckham defines the syndrome as ‘the tendency for people to try things that they are told not to in order to satisfy their curiosity, despite the chance of personal harm’ (Peckham, 2005). The behaviour is common in adolescents who test the rules of adult society (Symonds, 1966).

  • This author had a serious case of the syndrome as a primary school child when he regularly tested the electrification of cattle deterrent wires around Mr Reed’s residence. Sometimes I would get a shock and at other times nothing. We would test ...

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