The True Meaning of Freudian Slips

July 8, 2016

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 mean your 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?

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’).

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