Freudian Slips: The Psychology Behind Slips of the Tongue

Man covers his mouth while making a shocked expression.
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A Freudian slip, also called parapraxis, is a slip of the tongue that seems to inadvertently reveal an unconscious thought or attitude.

This concept dates back to the research of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud believed these slips of the tongue were usually sexual in nature, and credited the surfacing of deeply repressed desires from a person’s subconscious for the often embarrassing blunders.

History and Origins

Sigmund Freud is one of the most recognizable names in psychology. While modern researchers agree that his work was deeply flawed and often entirely incorrect, Freud laid much of the groundwork for key research in the field. Freud is well-known for his writings on sexuality, particularly his ideas about repressed sexual urges, which play a role in his work on parapraxis.

His first deep-dive into the Freudian slip appeared in his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, published in 1901. In the book, Freud described a woman's explanation of how her attitude towards a particular man changed from indifferent to warm over time. "I really never had anything against him," he recalled her saying. "I never gave him the chance to cuptivate my acquaintance." When Freud found out later that the man and woman began a romantic relationship, Freud determined that the woman meant to say “cultivate,” but her subconscious told her “captivate,” and “cuptivate” was the result.

Freud elaborated on the phenomenon again in his 1925 book An Autobiographical Study. “These phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations," he wrote. "They have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions.” Freud concluded that these slip-ups acted as windows into the subconscious, arguing that when someone said something they did not mean to say, their repressed secrets could sometimes be uncovered.

Important Studies

In 1979, psychological researchers at UC Davis studied Freudian slips by simulating environments in which such slips of the tongue were seemingly more likely to occur. They placed heterosexual male subjects in three groups. The first group was led by a middle-aged professor, the second group was led by an "attractive" lab assistant who wore "a very short skirt and ... translucent blouse", and the third group had electrodes attached to their fingers and was led by another middle-aged professor.

The leaders of each group asked the subjects to read a series of pairs of words silently, occasionally indicating that the participants should say the words out loud. The group with the electrodes were told that they might receive an electric shock if they misspoke.

The female-led group's errors (or Freudian slips) were more frequently sexual in nature. However, they did not make as many mistakes as the group with electrodes attached to their fingers. The researchers concluded that the anxiety of the potential shock was the cause of these more frequent slips of the tongue. Thus, they suggested, individuals are more likely to make Freudian slips if they are speaking quickly, or feeling nervous, tired, stressed, or intoxicated.

In other words, subconscious sexual desires are not the sole factor in Freudian slips, as Freud believed.

Historic Examples

Perhaps because of how frequently they give public speeches, politicians have given us some of the most famous examples of so-called Freudian slips. 

In 1991, Senator Ted Kennedy included an infamous slip-up in a televised speech. "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast," he paused, then corrected himself, "the best and the brightest." The fact that his hands were suggestively cupping the air as he spoke made the moment prime for Freudian analysis.

Former President George H. W. Bush offered another example of parapraxis during a 1988 campaign speech when he said, “We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex... uh... setbacks."

Politicians rehearse their stump speeches day after day, but even they fall victim to these sometimes-embarrassing slips of the tongue.

While contemporary research shows that Freud's original theory has its flaws, seemingly-revealing Freudian slips still generate conversation and even controversy today.   

Key Takeaways

  • The term "Freudian slip" refers to the psychological theory that, when a person misspeaks, they are inadvertently revealing repressed or secret desires. 
  • Freud first wrote about this concept in his 1901 book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
  • In 1979, researchers at UC Davis found that slips of the tongue occur most frequently when individuals are under stress or speaking quickly. From these findings, they concluded that subconscious sexual desires are not the sole cause of so-called Freudian slips.

Sources

  • Freud, Sigmund. ​ An autobiographical study. Hogarth Press, 1935, London, United Kingdom.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. The Macmillan Company, 1914. New York, New York.
  • Motley, M T, and B J Baars. “Effects of Cognitive Set upon Laboratory Induced Verbal (Freudian) Slips.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 1979, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/502504.
  • Pincott, Jena E. “Slips of the Tongue.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 13 Mar. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201203/slips-the-tongue