What Freudian slips really reveal about your mind
Do our verbal stumblings unveil our unconscious desires – or are they simply an innocent glitch in the brain’s workings? BBC Future investigates.
It was 1988 and the then-vice president, George H. W. Bush, was on a routine visit to Idaho. He was supposed to give a dry speech on agricultural policy and praise his successes alongside President Reagan, live on television. Then he said: “We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex... uh... setbacks.”
Long after his political career is consigned to distant memory, President George Bush Senior will be celebrated for this legendary gaffe.
Ah, the Freudian slip. There are the things you want to say, the things you could get away with saying and the things it would be utterly disastrous to utter – which, invariably, are what actually comes out of your mouth. It’s the greatest fear of any public speaker. But what really causes these errors? And do they have any hidden meaning?
For Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, it wasn’t enough to simply ask his patients what they thought. Their true desires, he believed, could only be examined by paying attention to ‘slips of the tongue’ and other clues from the unconscious. A classic slip is, as the saying goes, when you say one thing and meanyour mother.
Otherwise known as parapraxis, these verbal stumblings could reveal forbidden urges – such as sex and swearing – which were usually locked safely within the unconscious mind. Verbal errors aren’t random at all, but puzzles to be decoded.
There’s just one problem: Freudian slips, as with many of his other ideas, are extremely difficult to test. Freud may be as famous as Darwin, but many modern-day psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists think that he was wrong about almost everything. But was he wrong about this?
Why do we mean one thing, but say another? (Credit: iStock)
One ingenious early study used sex and electric shocks to find out. At the start of the experiment, two of three groups of heterosexual males were greeted by a middle-aged professor, while the third was ushered into a room with a provocatively dressed lab assistant. “We sort of went to the limits of what one might expect on campus. She was attractive and wearing a very short skirt and sort of a translucent blouse,” says Michael Motley, a psychologist from the University of California Davis who co-authored the study.
Participants were asked to read a list of word pairs (‘back mud’, ‘bat much’, ‘mad bug’)silently, at a rate of one per second. What they didn’t know was that the word pairs had been designed to induce ‘spoonerisms’, slip-ups named after the error-prone Reverend William Archibald Spooner, in which the initial sounds or letters in two words are switched.
Every so often the experimenters indicated, via a buzzer, for subjects to say a pair out loud. As Freud would have predicted, the men in the presence of the lab assistant made significantly more sex-based slip-ups (‘fast passion’ instead of ‘past fashion’ and ‘happy sex’ instead of ‘sappy hex’) than the control group, but no more slips overall.
Meanwhile the third group had their fingers hooked up to electrodes, plugged into a machine capable of delivering mild electric shocks. “We told the fellows – this was a lie, of course – there’s a 70% chance you’re going to get a shock,” says Motley. Again, the students let slip what was really on their mind (misreading ‘worst cottage’ as ‘cursed wattage’ and ‘shad bock’ as‘bad shock’).
The sight of a sexy lab assistant primed some lab participants to make embarrassing verbal blunders (Credit: iStock)
Later the experimenters measured the participants’ sexual anxiety and discovered, counter-intuitively, that those with the most carnal angst made the most sexual missteps. Why?
In attempting to suppress their urges, the men may have fallen victim to the ‘white bear problem’, first noticed by Russian author FyodorDostoyevsky. Try hard enough not to think of something, such as sex or a polar bear, and it will be all you can think about. It’s the basis for The Game, a popular mind game which challenges players to avoid thinking about its existence. Let it sneak into your conscious and you lose, and must announce your loss out loud – causing everyone around you to lose also. To win… well no one’s figured that one out yet.
Back in the 1980s, psychologist Daniel Wegner suggested that the very system which aims to prevent Freudian slips may be to blame. According to his theory, subconscious processes are continuously scouring our thoughts to keep our innermost desires locked away. When such a thought occurs, instead of remaining quiet – ironically – the thought may be announced to the conscious brain, causing you to think it.
Then it’s only a matter of time before the truth slips out. “When we’re thinking about something we’re priming the relevant words, they’re being prepared to be spoken in case we need them,” says Motley. With so many options, the word we end up choosing can be revealing.
The deeper we try to bury a thought, the more likely it is to spring back into consciousness (Credit: iStock)
Take the sentence “The old hillbilly kept his moonshine in a big (blank)”. In another version of the sexual arousal experiment, Motley asked participants to choose the last word. Lots of words – pitcher, barrel, jar – are viable candidates, but more often than not those who felt attracted to his lab assistant chose ‘jugs’. “It’s sort of doubly primed and it gets selected over the others. We think something similar is happening with Freudian slips,” says Motley.
Deliberately try not to tell your gym partner “you’re very fat – I mean fit!”, blurt out “pornography” at a meeting rather than “photography” or call out your ex’s name during sex, and you’ll be inviting subconscious sabotage. To add insult to injury, being stressed makes these catastrophic blunders even more likely.
But not everyone is convinced. At the time, Freud’s harshest critic was Austrian linguist Rudolf Meringer. While working at the University of Vienna in the late 19th Century, Meringer collected, catalogued and scrutinised thousands of verbal mistakes, mostly from lunchtime conversations with colleagues. The group would take turns speaking and when an error occurred, they would cease all conversation until it had been meticulously recorded.
From this record, Meringer concluded that slips of the tongue are intrusions of letters, not meaning. In fact, according to Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, the majority of errors are entirely innocent.
Often, apparent Freudian slips don't come from hidden desires at all - they simply reflect unfortunate verbal similarities (Credit: iStock)
Take the unfortunate blunder by journalist Jim Naughtie, who slipped up while pronouncing the then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s surname on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. At first glance it looks like a classic Freudian mishap; in fact, it reveals more about how the brain processes language than Naughtie’s feelings about the politician.
A mountain of experimental evidence has shown that if two words share contextual meaning and a vowel, the initial consonants are at risk of getting mixed up. “I’m sure many people don’t find Jeremy Hunt a very pleasant person, but it’s actually an intrusion of the ‘c’ from culture,” says Hartsuiker.
It’s the result of the way words are accessed in the brain. First, one must be selected from a network of words which are organised by similarity and meaning – an opportunity to mix up Culture and Hunt. Once you have the word, the brain selects the word sounds – which is when the consonants are swapped. “This is very typical, and it’s also something Freud rather ignored,” says Hartsuiker. As the program’s co-host pointed out at the time, you might say appointing a man with the name Hunt as the Culture Secretary was extremely reckless.
Despite these verbal traps, the average person slips up on fewer than 22 words per day out of around 15,000. Brain scans have shown that we routinely make embarrassing blunders while rehearsing our sentences in ‘inner speech’, but the majority are caught before we say them out loud. “What is produced at the end is correct but brainwaves reveal that internally they made the taboo mistake,” says Hartsuiker, who co-authored the study.
Some psychoanalysts stand by the original interpretation of Freudian slips as glimpses into our subconscious secrets (Credit: iStock)
We’re probably more vulnerable to slips when we’re distracted or our unconscious spellchecker isn’t working properly – if we’re nervous, tired, or intoxicated and as we get older. You’re also more likely to trip up if you’re talking too quickly.
In other words, our verbal slips may reveal something interesting about the way the brain processes language, and they may even suggest our current preoccupations we’d rather not discuss. But whether they ever tell our deepest secrets is still a matter of debate. Psychoanalysts like Rosine Perelberg from University College London certainly think they are important. “They are very much the stuff of jokes, but they are so precious because they betray something the person did not want to consciously reveal,” she says. “We take them very seriously.” She mentions a recent patient whose slip revealed subconscious anxieties about being violent towards his future child (he said battle instead of bottle).
Hartsuiker is sceptical. “The evidence for real Freudian slips is very, very limited indeed.” For others, it’s likely that the explanation depends on the slip. “Do I agree with Freud that all slips are Freudian? Well, no. But do I think that there is such a thing? Yes I think so,” says Motley.
So which kind was President George W. Bush’s slip-up? We’ll never know for sure, but they were probably just partners in copulation… sorry… collaboration.
If you liked this story,sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
A Freudian slip is a verbal or memory mistake linked to the unconscious mind. Also known as parapraxis, these slips supposedly reveal secret thoughts and feelings that people hold.
Freudian theory postulates that adult personality is made up of three aspects: (1) the id, operating on the pleasure principle generally within the unconscious; (2) the ego, operating on the reality principle within the conscious realm; and (3) the superego, operating on the morality principle at all levels of ...
Definition of Freudian slip
: a slip of the tongue that is motivated by and reveals some unconscious aspect of the mind.
Since experts have limited means of measuring unconscious thoughts and internal conflict, they have yet to find conclusive evidence that Freudian slips are a direct result of any unconscious urges or impulses you may have.
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.
Psychoanalysis is defined as a set of psychological theories and therapeutic techniques that have their origin in the work and theories of Sigmund Freud. 1 The core of psychoanalysis is the belief that all people possess unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories.
Freud is famous for inventing and developing the technique of psychoanalysis; for articulating the psychoanalytic theory of motivation, mental illness, and the structure of the subconscious; and for influencing scientific and popular conceptions of human nature by positing that both normal and abnormal thought and ...
Freud also believed that much of human behavior was motivated by two driving instincts: life instincts and death instincts. The life instincts (Eros) are those that relate to a basic need for survival, reproduction, and pleasure. They include such things as the need for food, shelter, love, and sex.
Overview. The id operates based on the pleasure principle, which demands immediate gratification of needs. The id is one of the three major components of personality postulated by Freud: the id, ego, and superego.
Personality theories provide a better environment where it is easier to understand human developmental concepts, which explain the various changes in individual behavioral changes.
The personal unconscious contains temporality forgotten information and well as repressed memories. Jung (1933) outlined an important feature of the personal unconscious called complexes. A complex is a collection of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and memories that focus on a single concept.
“The unconscious desire is what the central character learns, during their journey, that they really want. And often this is a more selfless goal.” He goes on to explain that in some films, the conscious desire and unconscious desire are the same.
According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories, the super-ego operates as a moral conscience, and the ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.
"When a child makes an error in speaking and then corrects himself or herself," she says, "then the observer can tell that the child knows what the appropriate pronunciation, word or syntax should have been." In such a way do children's slips of the tongue inform the field of linguistics.
repression, in psychoanalytic theory, the exclusion of distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings from the conscious mind. Often involving sexual or aggressive urges or painful childhood memories, these unwanted mental contents are pushed into the unconscious mind.
What does the phrase “A Slip of the Tongue” mean? It means an error in speaking in which the speaker says something unintentionally. Example of use: “Be careful talking to the police tomorrow; one slip of the tongue could get us into big trouble.”
Critical Evaluation. Is Freudian psychology supported by evidence? Freud's theory is good at explaining but not at predicting behavior (which is one of the goals of science). For this reason, Freud's theory is unfalsifiable - it can neither be proved true or refuted.
Psychoanalysis as a therapy became somewhat marginalized decades ago as biological and behavioral approaches gained recognition, but plenty of mental health professionals still practice some variation of it, and Freud's ideas are crucial in a wide spectrum of therapies today.
Dream interpretation: According to Freud, dream analysis is by far the most important psychoanalytic technique.
As well, Freud's take on defense mechanisms still holds relevance. Few people, including psychologists, would deny that we all too regularly employ such defenses as denial, repression, projection, intellectualization, and rationalization. The same can be said for his ideas on transference and catharsis.
What is the most serious problem with Freud's theory? It contradicts with the most recent ideas and research conducted.
In fact, one of the main reasons for the decline of psychoanalysis is that the ideas of Freud and his followers have gained little empirical support. Freud's theoretical model of the mind and of child development has been challenged and refuted by a wide range of evidence.
Some consider the human psyche as the most enduring theory of Freud's career. Freud published his personality theory in 1923, which hypothesizes that the human psyche is divided into three parts — the ego, the id and the superego. And they all develop at different stages of our lives.
Freud claimed that adult personality is the product of innate drives- i.e., natural motivations or urges we are born with- and childhood experiences- i.e., the way we are raised and nurtured.
The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that behavior and personality were derived from the constant and unique interaction of conflicting psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness: the preconscious, conscious, and unconscious.
The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. 1 If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink.
Freud's personality theory (1923) saw the psyche structured into three parts (i.e., tripartite), the id, ego and superego, all developing at different stages in our lives.
Sometimes called the unconscious mind, your subconscious mind contains all of the stored information of everything you have ever experienced. Because of this, it influences how you react to things, such as why you are shy, lazy, eat too much, or have an addiction.
The subconscious mind is far more powerful than the conscious mind and can process huge quantities of information that come via your five senses and translate them back to your brain in the blink of an eye.
The superego not only controls the id and its impulses towards societal taboos, like sex and aggression, it also attempts to get the ego to go beyond realistic standards and aspire to moralistic ones. The superego works at both conscious and unconscious levels.
The id, ego and superego work together to create human behavior. The id creates the demands, the ego adds the needs of reality, and the superego adds morality to the action which is taken.
A healthy ego allows you to perceive people as being a rich combination of many values, attributes, strengths and challenges.