What's Really Happening When You Have a Freudian Slip


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A Freudian slip is a verbal or memory mistake that is believed to be linked to the unconscious mind. These slips supposedly reveal the real secret thoughts and feelings that people hold. Typical examples include an individual calling his or her spouse by an ex's name, saying the wrong word, or even misinterpreting a written or spoken word.

How Freudian Slips Reveal the Unconscious

It was the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who described a variety of different types and examples of Freudian slips in his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," he wrote. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

According to Freud, these errors reveal unconscious thoughts, beliefs, or wishes.

"Two factors seem to play a part in bringing to consciousness the substitutive names: first, the effort of attention, and second, and inner determinant which adheres to the psychic material," Freud suggested in his book. "Besides the simple forgetting of proper names there is another forgetting which is motivated by repression," Freud explained.

According to Freud, unacceptable thoughts or beliefs are withheld from conscious awareness, and these slip help reveal what is hidden in the unconscious.

Modern Takes on Freudian Slips

The term is popularly used today in a humorous way when a person makes a mistake in speech. In these situations, observers often suggest (in a comic way) that the error reveals some hidden emotion on the part of the speaker.

While Freud imparted a great deal of hidden meaning in these errors, verbal mistakes are simply an inevitable part of life.

In an article for Psychology Today, writer Jena Pincott suggested that people make one to two errors for every 1,000 words they say. This amount to somewhere between 7 and 22 verbal slip-ups during the average day, depending on how much a person talks. Some of these errors might indeed reveal unconscious thoughts and feelings, but in other cases, they are simply cases of misremembering language errors and other mistakes.

A few studies have supported Freud's idea that unconscious or even suppressed thoughts can increase the likelihood of verbal errors. Motley and Bears (1979) found that people who thought they might receive an electric shock were more likely to make shock-related verbal mistakes. Those who were near an attractive female experimenter were also more likely to mistake nonsense phrases for words related to beautiful women.

In one classic experiment, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner asked participants to engage in a stream-of-consciousness verbalization for five minutes. People just talked about whatever passed through their minds for a brief period. The catch was that Wegner asked them not to think about a white bear. Whenever they did think about a white bear, they were supposed to ring a bell.

What Wegner found was that those who had been asked not to think about a white bear thought of it an average of once per minute.

Based on these findings, Wegner developed what he referred to as a theory of ironic process to explain why suppressing certain thoughts can be so difficult. While certain parts of the brain suppress the hidden thoughts, another part of our minds occasionally "checks in" to make sure that we are still not thinking about it--ironically bringing the very thoughts we are trying to keep hidden to the forefront of our minds.

In many cases, the harder we try not to think of something, the more frequently it springs to mind. And the more often we think of something, the more likely we are to express it verbally.

The Original Freudian Slip

Freud based his idea on his work with a young man who misquoted a Latin phrase from The Aeneid. The young man had dropped one of the Latin words when he repeated it to Freud, which the psychoanalyst believed that dropping the word offered a revealing look into the young man's unconscious mind.

Through free association, Freud determined that the word reminded the young man of blood, which he believed was linked to a pregnancy scare the man had experienced with his girlfriend. Freud suggested that the man had blocked out the word because it reminded him of this negative experience.

Examples of Freudian Slips in Popular Culture

You’ve probably heard plenty of amusing slips of the tongue in your own life. Think about the time your biology teacher accidentally uttered orgasm instead of organism (much too amusing your class). Or the time you accidentally told someone you were “Sad to meet you!” instead of “Glad to meet you!”

Verbal gaffes also provide plenty of amusement when spoken by famous figures, especially when such moments are captured on film.

Here are just a few modern examples of famous Freudian slips:

  • During a Vatican sermon in 2014, Pope Francis accidentally used the Italian word cazzo (which translates to "F***) instead of "caso" (which means "example"). The Pope quickly corrected himself, but not before the slip posted on dozens of websites, blogs, and YouTube videos.
  • During a televised speech on education, Senator Ted Kennedy meant to say that "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the best and brightest." Instead, Kennedy accidentally said breast - his hands even cupping the air as he said the word. While he quickly corrected his gaffe and continued, the slip of the tongue seemed revealing considering his hand gestures and the family's reputation for womanizing.
  • At a Washington D.C. dinner party, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor to President Bush stated, “As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush.” The Freudian slip seemed to reveal perhaps some hidden feelings the unmarried Rice might hold toward her boss.
  • When actress Amanda Seyfried appeared on the Today show to promote the film Ted 2, announcer Willie Geist accidentally described her as "titsy" rather than "ditzy." Besides simply being an amusing slip, the comment perhaps revealed what was really on his mind.