The concept of a “Freudian slip” is that when a person misspeaks, they inadvertently reveal repressed or secret desires. The theory is well known, but there is little — if any — scientific proof that a slip of the tongue is anything more than accidental.
For example, a Freudian slip may reveal things a person wants but is unable to express, or it may reveal feelings a person has that they themselves have not yet consciously realized.
Freudian slips are commonly associated with saying the wrong word. However, these slips can also take the form of physical blunders or forgetfulness, such as memory repression.
This article explores the origin of the Freudian slip and what a person’s brain may or may not explain about their slip of the tongue.
A Freudian slip may reveal a person’s secret thoughts and feelings. It may also be known as parapraxis or a “slip of the tongue.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a Freudian slip as:
“an unconscious error or oversight in writing, speech, or action that is held to be caused by unacceptable impulses breaking through the ego’s defenses and exposing the individual’s true wishes or feelings.”
This means that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, a Freudian slip occurs when a person means to say one thing when they say something entirely different. In doing so, they reveal a previously hidden or secret desire.
However, Freudian slips are likely misspeaking that seem to have no underlying psychoanalytic interpretation. For example, if a tired parent calls one child by another child’s name, it is likely just because they are tired or distracted.
While some argue that William Shakespeare conceived the Freudian slip before the founder of psychoanalysis was even born, the concept of the Freudian slip as we know it today dates back to the research of Sigmund Freud.
However, Freud did not name the slips after himself. In his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud discussed “Fehlleistungen,” a word he coined to refer to “faulty actions” such as a slip of the tongue.
According to Freud, these faulty actions reveal a person’s unconscious thoughts, wishes, or motives (which he believed were most often sexual in nature) and happen when deeply repressed desires break through the surface of the person’s subconscious.
According to Freud’s theory, pieces of the unconscious mind make their way into conscious behaviors. He believed that this phenomenon is what makes people say something other than what they meant to say.
However, determining how and why those hidden thoughts escape is tricky.
Because a slip of the tongue happens randomly, it is difficult to study them in a research setting.
As for the hidden pieces themselves, doctors have limited means of actually measuring the unconscious thoughts and internal conflict related to Freudian slips.
Thus, more research, and possibly more advancements in research tools, are necessary for conclusively determining what happens in the brain when a person experiences a slip of the tongue.
Whether or not they seem sexual in nature, many Freudian slips probably have very basic explanations.
Using the wrong word by accident or due to distraction is common, as is a blunder due to the power of suggestion. For example, when someone tries not to think about something and then constantly thinks about it, words can do the same.
Some slips are less about misspeaking and more about misremembering.
For example, the psychoanalytic theory suggests that when a person experiences something that causes fear, pain, or shame, their mind might respond with a defense mechanism, such as repression.
Repressing a memory is an unconscious process. The person is unaware they are doing it, and it does not entirely delete the memory. Therefore, if the person experiences something similar later on, they may also end up repressing that memory.
It is difficult to point to concrete examples of Freudian slips. It is not possible to tell if people have simply misspoken, or whether there could be underlying psychoanalytic interpretations.
People may make these errors in their speech or writing for a variety of reasons, and whether a person sees additional hidden meanings is subjective.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that a Freudian slip is a mistake in speech, memory, or physical action that may relate to the unconscious mind. Specifically, they may relate to hidden thoughts or desires a person has and are often sexual in nature.
A slip of the tongue can be common. However, they may also happen during writing, typing, or even physical acts. Some slips are related more to memory than words or actions.
Despite Freud’s various impacts on psychology and psychiatry, researchers have yet to conclusively prove his so-called faulty actions, or Freudian slips. It is likely most of them are simply accidents.