Freudian slip (A complete guide)

What is a freudian slip?

A Freudian slip is a verbal or memory mistake believed to be linked to the unconscious mind.

A Freudian slip, which also falls under the definition of a parapraxis, is a mistake in conversation that happens when an individual says something other than what was expected, and other than what they really meant to say.

The full description of parapraxis is a slip of the tongue or the pen, forgetfulness, losing things – in short, a faulty act of purposeful behavior.

How do Freudian slips reveal the unconscious?

Psychology’s most famous figure Sigmund Freud, who was the founder of psychoanalysis, first described a variety of different types and examples of these errors, which became known as 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.”

“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 or hidden thoughts or beliefs are withheld from conscious awareness, but sometimes, when attention is wavering or thoughts are on several things at the same time, these slips can help to reveal thoughts, beliefs or wishes which are hidden in the unconscious.

We have all heard this kind of slip, either in our own lives or in quotes by famous people, for example when your biology teacher accidentally said orgasm instead of organism, or in a moment of anger your partner speaks an ex- partner’s name instead of yours.

What are current takes on Freudian slips?

The term is used often today in an amusing manner when an individual commits an error in conversation.

In these circumstances, witnesses frequently suggest, usually in a comic way, that the blunder uncovers some subconscious feeling with respect to the speaker.

While Freud conferred a lot of hidden significance to these blunders, verbal mix-ups are generally an unavoidable part of life. 

In an article for Psychology Today, author Jena Pincott recommended us that individuals make one to two blunders for each 1,000 words they state.

This adds up to somewhere between seven and 22 verbal slip-ups during a normal day, obviously depending how much an individual talks.

Some of these slips may, in reality, uncover hidden feelings and thoughts, yet in many cases, they are essentially instances of misremembering words and thinking about several things at once. 

In one great investigation in the 1980s, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner suggested that the very system which aims to prevent Freudian slips may be to blame.

He requested that members take part in a continuous flow of verbalization for five minutes.

Individuals talked about whatever crossed their thoughts, but the catch was that Wegner asked some of 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 discovered was that the individuals who had been given information about a white bear thought of it on average about once a minute. 

In light of these discoveries, Wegner created what he alluded to as a theory of ironic process to explain why suppressing certain thoughts could be so hard to achieve.

While certain parts of the brain suppress the concealed thoughts, another section regularly “checks in” to ensure that we are still not thinking about it-, thus ironically bringing the very thoughts we are trying to hide to the forefront of our minds.

As a rule, the harder we try not to think about something, the more often we do just that.

Furthermore, the more often we think about something, the more likely we are to say it in conversation.

Has the theory of the Freudian slip been scientifically supported?

The theory of unconscious conflict which leads to the Freudian slip was finally scientifically supported 111 years after it was theorised, in research from 2012.

A study at that time revealed how the theory, which forms part of the basis of all psychoanalysis, is linked to the conscious symptoms of people with anxiety disorders such as phobias.

For years, people have referred to mistakes, like calling a partner by the wrong name, as a Freudian slip.

Researchers took 11 people with anxiety disorders, who all received psychoanalysis as part of the study, to see what underlying unconscious conflict might be causing the anxiety.

Words capturing the nature of the unconscious conflict were then selected from the interviews, as well as words that related to each patient’s experience of anxiety disorder symptoms.

A control category with words that had no relationship to the unconscious conflict or anxiety symptoms were presented to three patients wearing scalp electrodes to measure brain responses.

Researchers found a new measurement of the brain’s alpha wave frequency, linked to communication, was made when the unconscious conflict words were presented directly before the conscious words.

The results showed highly significant correlations when the amount of alpha responses generated by the unconscious words were grouped with the conscious words.

The researchers believe that the fact these are a function of inhibition suggests, from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, that repression might be involved.

Professor Howard Shevrin, of the University of Michigan, said: ‘Only when the unconscious conflict words were presented unconsciously could the brain see them as connected. What the analysts put together from the interview session made sense to the brain only unconsciously. These results create a compelling case that unconscious conflicts cause or contribute to the anxiety symptoms the patient is experiencing.’

What are some modern examples of Freudian slips?

·      During a televised speech on education, Senator Ted Kennedy meant to state that “Our national interest should be to encourage the best and brightest.”

Instead, Kennedy incidentally said breast – his hands even cupping the air as he said it. While he quickly corrected himself and carried on, the slip of the tongue, along with the hand gestures, seemed revealing

·      At a Washington D.C. dinner party, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor to President Bush said, “As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush.”

The Freudian slip appeared to potentially reveal some hidden feelings Rice, single, may have held towards her boss. 

·      When actress Amanda Seyfried appeared on the Today show to promote the film Ted 2, compere Willie Geist accidentally called her “titsy” rather than “ditzy.”

Besides being amusing, perhaps the comment revealed his true thoughts.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Freud and Freudian slips: 

1.    What is an example of a Freudian slip?

A woman might intend to tell her friend, “I am so in love with Peter.”

But instead of saying Peter’s Name, she might say “I am so in love with John”, where John is her ex-boyfriend.

2.    What is a Freudian slip meant to reveal?

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.

What causes a Freudian slip?

A Freudian slip, also called parapraxis, is an error in speech, memory, or physical action that occurs due to the interference of an unconscious subdued wish or internal train of thought.

The concept is part of classical psychoanalysis.

4.    What did Sigmund Freud say about dreams?

Freud believed dreams represented a disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish.

He believed that studying dreams provided the easiest road to understanding the unconscious activities of the mind.

5.    Why is Freud important?

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the founding father of psychoanalysis, a method for treating mental illness and also a theory which explains human behavior.

Freud believed that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality.

6.    Who coined the term Freudian slip?

The Freudian slip is named after Sigmund Freud, who, in his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, described and analyzed a large number of seemingly trivial, bizarre or nonsensical errors and slips, most notably the Signorelli parapraxis.

7.    What is the point of psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud.

Freud believed that people could be cured by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations, thus gaining insight.

The aim of psychoanalysis therapy is to release repressed emotions and experiences i.e. make the unconscious conscious.

8.    Why is psychoanalysis not a science?

The absence of solid and persuasive evidence for the theory may be the consequence of its self-imposed isolation from the empirical sciences.

The philosopher Karl Popper considered psychoanalysis to be a pseudoscience because it has produced so many hypotheses that cannot be refuted empirically.

9.    What methods did Freudian therapists use?

The psychoanalyst uses various techniques as encouragement for the client to develop insights into their behavior and the meanings of symptoms, including ink blots, parapraxes, free association, interpretation (including dream analysis), resistance analysis and transference analysis.

10.                  Why is Freud’s theory unfalsifiable?

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 nor refuted. For example, the unconscious mind is difficult to test and measure objectively.

Want to learn more about Freudian slips? Try these books!

Freudian Slips: All the Psychology You Need to Know

Freudian Slips presents the essential facts and findings of the fascinating subject of psychology in an accessible and enjoyable way, leaving no slip or phallic symbol unexamined.

From psychoanalysis to behavior therapy, via the subconscious and the unconscious, the book charts a path through the subject’s controversial history, and encounters the work of all the big names in the field, such as Freud, Jung, Skinner, Bandura, Piaget and Köhler. 

A Freudian Slip Is When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother: 879 Funny, Funky, Hip, and Hilarious Puns

All puns intended in this book guaranteed to add some laughs into your life. You can count on the so-called “lowest form of humor” to raise your mood, even when everything around you is on fire. Why?

Because wordplay is where it’s at—in headlines, in stand-up routines, in classic literature, and even in politics, where humor is needed more than ever before.

The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Definitive Text

The standard edition of Sigmund Freud’s classic work on the psychology and significance of dreams, What are the most common dreams and why do we have them? What does a dream about death mean?

What do dreams of swimming, failing, or flying symbolize?

First published in 1899, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams, explores why we dream and why dreams matter in our psychological lives.


What Freudian slips really reveal about your mind – BBC – July 2016

What It Really Means When You Have A Freudian Slip – Refinery29 – January 2017

Slips of the Tongue Psychology Today – October 2019

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