Freudian slips are those embarrassing tell-tale slips of the tongue that reveal our innermost thoughts.
They are the verbal mistakes that are linked to our unconscious feelings. Even the rich and famous are vulnerable to Freudian slips.
- In 1988, the then Vice-President, George H.W Bush gave a speech on live television. He was supposed to praise Ronald Reagan. He said: “We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex… uh… setbacks.”
- In the UK, journalist Jim Naughtie was talking on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Unfortunately, he used a C instead of an H when pronouncing the then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s surname.
- Freudian slips seem to be particularly prevalent in the White House. During a dinner party, the then National Security Advisor to President Bush – Condoleezza Rice, said: “As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush.”
- Even the Pope is not immune to a Freudian slip. Pope Francis was delivering a sermon at the Vatican in 2014, when he accidentally said ‘cazzo’ which means a four-letter word beginning with F, instead of ‘caso’ which means example.
So we can see that Freudian slips affect everyone, but what do they reveal about your personality?
Freudian Slips reveal your true desires
Freud believed that it was our unconscious mind that held the keys to our behaviour. He paid particular attention to dreams, defense mechanisms and of course, slips of the tongue.
These Freudian slips, also known as parapraxis, are supposed to be our forbidden thoughts and desires. They are usually locked safely away in our unconscious mind. But even though they are buried deep in our unconscious, Freud believed that eventually, they will surface, in the form of a Freudian slip.
Why do we choose a certain word?
Michael Motley, a psychologist from the University of California, Davis, has been studying Freudian slips. He believes that there is something in the word that we end up choosing:
“When we’re thinking about something we’re priming the relevant words, they’re being prepared to be spoken in case we need them.”
Motley reckoned that the more we try to not think about a word, the more likely we are to choose it. An example used in his study was the sentence:
‘The old hillbilly kept his moonshine in a big (blank)’.
Participants were helped by an attractive lab assistant and asked to select from a choice of words to fill in the blank. Amongst the list of choices was: pitcher, barrel, jar and many more. The participants that were attracted to the lab assistant invariably 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.
Can Freudian Slips really reveal your personality?
Freudian slips, however, are extremely difficult to study and test. How do you test and measure a slip of the tongue with an unconscious thought? In fact, there are many studies that dispute Freudian slips.
One person who disagreed with Freud was the Austrian linguist Rudolf Meringer. Meringer was working at the same time as Freud and spent hundreds of hours collecting verbal mistakes, made by his colleagues mostly. When the data had been collected and studied, Meringer concurred that most slips of the tongue were down to mixing up the letters, not the actual words.
Many other linguists agree with Meringer, including Gary Dell, a Professor of Linguistics and Psychology, at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
Freudian Slips reflect similarities between words
Dell believes that Freudian slips reveal how a person’s brain processes language. He suggests that in order to produce speech, the brain uses three networks:
Speech occurs via interaction with all three networks, a process Dell calls ‘spreading activation’. Slip-ups happen when these interactions get mixed up.
So imagine that you want to say the word ‘nutrition’. Your brain immediately activates nodes that start up the semantic network. It goes through all the stored words that have something to do with that concept (food, nutrients, nourishment, diet) before selecting the one that activates the strongest.
Then the phonological part comes into play. The brain now needs to activate the nodes that produce the sound of the word, so the ‘n’, the ‘u’, and so on. Now the lexical network starts up and activates nodes that places the word nutrition properly in a sentence structure.
The way slips up occur is that sometimes the nodes that are supposed to produce a sound for later on in the sentence get activated prematurely at the start of the sentence. This Freudian slip is known as a forward error, or anticipation. An example of this is when Ted Kennedy gave a speech about education:
“Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast…. The best and brightest.”
Unfortunately for Ted, the ‘r’ sound from later on in the sentence in the word ‘brightest’, had rushed forward to ‘best’ and corrupted it to ‘breast’.
As well as a forward error, there is also a backward error, or perseveration, where the node for the sound is activated for too long in a sentence. So for example, ‘I’d love to pamper you’, is corrupted to ‘I’d love to pamper poo.’
Do Freudian slips reveal our true personality?
So Freudian slips do not reveal our innermost or darkest secrets, unfortunately. But they can reveal an interesting way in which our brain processes language.