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What’s the Deal with Freudian Slips?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 24, 2022


Have you ever said something that you actually did not mean to say? Or did you blurt out a word that was unintentional?

Well, according to psychologist Sigmund Freud, this could be revealing a secret wish or thought of yours - and it is called a Freudian slip.

What are Freudian Slips?

A Freudian slip, or sometimes known as a parapraxis, is a verbal or memory mistake (a "slip of the tongue") that is considered to be linked to the unconscious mind.

These slips apparently reveal private thoughts and feelings that individuals hold. Representative examples include a person calling their partner by an ex's name, saying an incorrect word, or even misunderstanding a spoken or written word.

It commonly happens when one is talking but can also occur when typing or writing something down.

According to the psychoanalysis from Sigmund Freud, you can trace these slip-ups back to unconscious urges, and these can either be:

  • something one genuinely wants to say but feels that one is unable to express
  • unrealized feelings that have not yet entered one's realm of conscious thought

In everyday life, Freudian slips are incredibly common - you might have caught yourself having one now and again. Nevertheless, do they always relate to secret impulses and unexpressed desires, or is there a more straightforward explanation?

The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described a combination of diverse kinds and examples of his coined "Freudian slips" in his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life published back in 1901.

Freud noted that speech errors result from a "disturbing influence of something outside of the intended speech," such as an unconscious belief, wish, or thought. Freud also addressed the sometimes-common problem of failing to remember names, saying that it could possibly be related to repression.

In his perspective, inappropriate thoughts or beliefs are withheld from conscious awareness, and these slips help expose what is hidden in the unconscious.

Freud based this idea on his research with a young man who incorrectly quoted a Latin phrase from "The Aeneid." The young man had unconsciously skipped one of the Latin words when he recited it. Freud believed this action of dropping the word was a revealing look into the man's unconscious mind.

Through psychoanalysis, Freud realized that the word reminded the man of blood, which he stated was connected to a pregnancy scare the man had encountered with his girlfriend. Freud proposed that the man had blocked out the word because it reminded him of this gloomy experience.

Freud also described another example which was that of a woman's explanation of how her attitude towards a certain man altered from uninterested to warm with time. He recalled her saying that she never really had anything against him and that she "...never gave him the chance to cuptivate my acquaintance."

When Freud discovered later that the man and woman began a romantic relationship, Freud defined that the woman meant to say "cultivate." Still, her subconscious told her "captivate," Therefore, the word "cuptivate" was the outcome.

Freud elaborated on this theory again in his 1925 book An Autobiographical Study. He wrote, "These phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations."

Freud stated that they have a meaning and can be interpreted. He said that one is justified in inferring the presence of restrained or repressed urges and intentions.

Freud concluded that these slip-ups served as windows into the subconscious, debating that their repressed secrets could sometimes be revealed when someone expressed something they did not mean to say.

Types of Freudian Slips

As mentioned, typical examples of Freudian slips include:

  • Calling one's spouse by an ex's name.
  • Stating the wrong word.
  • Even misunderstanding a written or spoken word.

However, there are different kinds of Freudian slips. Let us go through them now.

Forgetfulness that is linked to Repression

Specific Freudian slips involve a slip of recollection rather than the tongue. Based on psychoanalytic theory, when you experience something that generates shame, anxiety, or pain, your mind may react by driving away memories of that occurrence.

If you happen to experience something similar to that event later in life, you might find yourself forgetting that, too.

An example of this would be that, say, a dog bit you as a child. This dog was reasonably gentle, but you poked and prodded him one day, ignoring cautionary growls until he munched your arm.

You had to go to the hospital and receive several stitches, but other than a slight distrust of bigger dogs, you have no memory of the incident or the dog's name, which, for instance, was Marcus.

However, when a new colleague, Joe Marcus, joins your office, you find it challenging to remember his last name. You recall "Joe" perfectly fine but unfailingly draw a blank on what comes next.

A psychoanalytic interpretation might indicate that your mind evades remembering his name since it could trigger suppressed memories of the dog named Marcus and the traumatic incident of being bitten.

Forgetfulness that is linked to Desire

Another memory slip can happen when you do or do not want to do something. Is there a lengthy to-do list of essential errands and chores you keep losing? A psychoanalysis would likely demonstrate that you persist in misplacing the list to postpone those less-than-pleasant tasks.

Here is another example. One day after a lecture, you chat with an attractive classmate who offers you a ride home. As your conversation continues, a fascination develops. All you can ponder about is how you are going to see them again.

When you get out of their car outside your house, you unwittingly forget your wallet under the passenger seat. Once you recognize this, you look up your classmate in the class directory so you can get their contact information to reclaim your wallet.
Maybe you did not think, "I'll leave my stuff in the car so we can meet up later." Still, psychoanalytic logic might mean this crush caused you to "forget" these things so you could have a reasonable cause to reach your classmate.

Spoken Distortions or Speech Blunders

Most people think of this when they hear about Freudian slips — these are the slip-ups in your speaking that do not really make much sense. We can refer back to this coworker Joe Marcus.

Instead of just forgetting his name, you also consistently use the wrong word. You substitute Mario, Matthew, Marty — to the point where your incapacity to remember becomes a running joke in the office.

According to Freud, this does not happen intentionally, and your brain is simply trying to find a midpoint between your conscious and unconscious thoughts.

Why do Freudian Slips Happen?

We do not know precisely why Freudian slips happen, and since they demand a spontaneous mistake on the speaker's part, they are tough to test. Nevertheless, there are a few probable explanations for why they occur and what they signify.

Thought Suppression

There is some research that supports Freud's theory that unconscious or even repressed thoughts can boost the possibility of verbal slips. For example, one study conducted in 1979 discovered that people who believed they would receive a painful electric shock were more likely to make "shock-related" verbal errors.

Those near an attractive experimenter were also more likely to mistake gibberish phrases for words related to beautiful people.

In a notable 1987 experiment, participants who had been explicitly asked not to think about a white bear tended to think of the creature quite repeatedly, surprisingly, an average of once per minute.

Based on these results, psychologist Daniel Wegner created what he referred to as a "theory of ironic process" to describe why repressing specific thoughts can be so tricky.

While specific parts of the brain suppress the concealed thoughts, another part of our minds periodically "checks in" to ensure that we are still not thinking about it.

This could be ironically bringing the very ideas we are trying to keep hidden to the forefront of our tongues. In lots of cases, the more we try not to think of something, the more frequently it jumps into mind, and therefore, the more likely we are to say it verbally.

Language Processing

Verbal mistakes may furthermore be associated with the way our brains process language. We silently edit our words before speaking, being careful to monitor ourselves for mistakes or inappropriate language, and this process happens constantly.

Freudian slips may be moments where this system failed, and an error slipped out before the brain could catch it.

On average, people make around one to two errors for every a thousand words said. Amounting to between seven and 22 verbal slip-ups during the average day (depending on how much a person talks).

While Freud made a great deal of hidden meaning in these errors, verbal mistakes may be an inescapable part of life.

Alternative Explanations for Freudian Slips

If Freudian slips do not happen due to our deepest desires finally asserting themselves, then what really causes them? Consider this collection of plausible, probably less intriguing, explanations.

Distraction

If you have ever tried to write something down while listening to someone talk about something completely unrelated, you may have jotted down some of their words instead. Let us say you are chatting with friends, but your mind has floated off to think about what you will wear on your date later.

Your friend frantically waves a hand in front of your face and asks if you are listening, so you snap back to attention and say, "Yes! Sorry! I was dressing," This reveals where your thoughts actually were.

We can remember back to that attractive classmate who gave you a ride home. Maybe you were so distracted by your new fascination that you quickly left your wallet because you were so distracted that you forgot to check for those essentials when getting out of the car.

Accident

All languages can be complex. By adulthood, you know tens of thousands of words, so it is rather conceivable to blend some of them up from time to time.

Like any other system, the brain webs accountable for speech periodically make errors, which is entirely normal.

One might detect it when the sound of a later word inches forward into an earlier word, for example. This could produce a word ranging from ridiculous to downright mischievous. Swaps between word sounds can also result in "You kissed the last mite" rather than "You missed the last kite."

Suggestion

If you have ever tried to put something clearly out of your mind, you can presumably confirm that it often quickly pops right back in your thoughts. As one experiment demonstrated, trying not to think about something can make it even more possible that you will think about it.

Say you need a bathroom, and someone says, "Whatever you do, do not think about waterfalls."

It is safe to say you will instantly start thinking about cascades as well as flowing rivers and heavy downpours. When you have something on your mind, one might see that it similarly slips into the discussion. Do you know how someone saying "try not to worry about it" can make you even more anxious?

Examples of Freudian Slips

Today, we typically use the term "Freudian Slip" in a funny way when a person makes an error in speech, especially one with sexual connotations. You have presumably heard plenty of entertaining tongue slips in your own life.

One can think about the time the biology teacher accidentally said the word "orgasm" instead of "organism," or the time you accidentally told somebody you were "Sad to meet you!" instead of "Glad to meet you!"

Verbal blunders also provide plenty of amusement when famous figures speak, particularly when such moments are captured on film.
Here are just a couple of contemporary examples of prominent Freudian slips:

  • While giving his speech about education on television, Senator Ted Kennedy meant to state: "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the best and brightest." Rather, Kennedy slipped up and said the word "breast," and his hands were even cupping the air as he said the word. While he quickly rectified his gaffe and resumed, a slip of the tongue seemed quite revealing.
  • During a sermon given at the Vatican in 2014, Pope Francis accidentally said the Italian word "cazzo" (which translates to vulgarity) instead of "caso" (which means "example"). The Pope quickly corrected his mistake, but not before sharing the mistake on dozens of websites, blogs, and YouTube videos.
  • In Washington, D.C., at a dinner party, past National Security Advisor to President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, stated, "As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush..." The Freudian slip might have revealed some suppressed feelings the unmarried Rice could have held toward her boss.

Do Freudian Slips Truly Mean Anything?

As we stated before, the very nature of Freudian slips makes them challenging to study in a research environment, mainly because they happen so intermittently.

If they do relate to deep, dark desires, as Freud suggested, investigators would need to explore people's unconscious minds to find support for the existence of their hidden desires.

Psychoanalysis holds that slips happen as a fleeting lapse in one's ability to keep those thoughts suppressed. Research would also demand a closer look at this inner conflict.

Since experts have restricted means of gauging unconscious thoughts and internal conflict, they have yet to find definitive evidence that Freudian slips directly result from any unconscious wishes or whims you may have.

In 1992, a team of researchers examined plausible explanations for Freudian slips, examining internal conflict over managing unwanted habits and emotions activated through hypnosis.

They reported that some association between slips and associated thoughts seemed to exist, encouraging future research. However, they also pointed out the multiple flaws in their studies, highlighting the difficulty in finding meaningful results. Moreover, at this point, the research is more than two decades old.

However, researchers did report a noticeable link between Freudian slips of a sexual nature and sex-related guilt.

People with increased levels of sexual guilt seem to make more of these blunders, possibly because they feel conflicted over whether to dodge or seek out people they feel attracted to; however, these are not firm findings.

So, you have made a Freudian slip or two. Do not worry about it too much, as most people make them rather regularly. Even if you expressed something inappropriate to a roomful of people, those who noticed would likely forget about it quickly.

Accidentally calling your parent by your partner's name or saying "I am delighted to eat you" does not mean you have anything worrisome or wicked dwelling in your subconscious. Often, it presumably just means your thoughts are elsewhere.

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology. Mia is the author is Our AstroLegacy (available on Amazon & Kindle) – the purpose of her book is for self-awareness in discovering one's place in the universe. She poses existential interrogations like who are you? What is human? What is real? What do we actually know? And gives answers through Astrobiology, Psychology, and Evolution.

How to reference this article:

Frothingham, M.B. (2022, April 26). What’s the Deal with Freudian Slips? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/freudian-slip.html

References

Baars, B. J., Berry, J. W., Cohen, J., & Bower, G. H. (1992). Some caveats on testing the Freudian slip hypothesis. In Experimental slips and human error (pp. 289-313). Springer, Boston, MA.and successful aging. Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund. The psychopathology of everyday life. WW Norton & Company, 1989.

Freud, S. (1963). An autobiographical study. WW Norton & Company.

Hinterhuber, H. (2007). Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Meringer and Carl Mayer: slips of the tongue and mis-readings. The history of a controversy. Neuropsychiatrie: Klinik, Diagnostik, Therapie und Rehabilitation: Organ der Gesellschaft Osterreichischer Nervenarzte und Psychiater, 21(4), 291-301.

Winerman, L. (2011). Suppressing the'white bears'. American Psychological association42, 44-50.

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