A Freudian slip, or parapraxis, refers to what you might also call a slip of the tongue.
It’s when you mean to say one thing but instead say something entirely different. It commonly happens when you’re talking but can also occur when typing or writing something down — and even in your memory (or lack thereof).
According to psychoanalytic thought, you can trace these slip-ups back to unconscious desires and urges, whether those are:
- things you actually want to say but feel unable to express
- unrealized feelings that haven’t yet entered your realm of conscious thought
Freudian slips are incredibly common. But do they really always relate to secret impulses and unexpressed desires, or is there a simpler explanation?
Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, was one of the first to talk about Freudian slips, though he didn’t use his own name to describe them.
He discussed what he referred to in German as “Fehlleistungen,” or faulty actions, at length in his 1901 book, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”
Research does, however, note examples that predate Freud, such as in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
According to Freud, bits of the unconscious mind leak out into conscious behaviors, and this prompts you to say something other than what you had intended.
These memory lapses and errors happen when thoughts or desires you’ve either suppressed (consciously pushed away) or repressed (buried without thinking) resurface.
Today a so-called Freudian slip might describe any kind of misspeak. These errors don’t always have a psychoanalytic interpretation.
For example, a child who accidentally calls their teacher “Mom” is simply transitioning from spending most of day with their mother to spending most of the day with their teacher. A stressed parent who calls one child by the name of another child (or the family dog) is often simply busy and tired.
In his book “Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies,” professor Henk de Berg separates Freudian slips into the following categories.
Forgetfulness linked to repression
Certain Freudian slips involve a slip of memory rather than the tongue.
According to psychoanalytic theory, when you experience something that causes shame, fear, or pain, your mind may respond by pushing away memories of that event. If you happen to encounter something later in life that’s similar to that event, you might find yourself forgetting that, too.
Say as a child you were bitten by a dog. This dog had a fairly gentle nature, but one day you poked and prodded him, ignoring warning growls, until he bit your arm.
You needed several stitches, but other than a slight mistrust of large dogs, you have no memory of the incident or the dog’s name, which was Nottingham.
Yet when a new coworker, Carl Nottingham, joins your team, you find it embarrassingly difficult to remember his last name. You remember “Carl” just fine but consistently draw a blank on what comes next.
A psychoanalytic interpretation might suggest your mind avoids the memory of his name since it could trigger buried memories of the dog Nottingham and the traumatic experience of being bitten.
Forgetfulness linked to desire
Another type of memory slip can happen when you do or don’t want to do something.
That lengthy to-do list of important errands and chores you keep misplacing? Psychoanalysis would likely offer the explanation that you continue to lose the list in order to delay those less-than-pleasant tasks.
Here’s another example: One day after a lecture, you get to chatting with an extremely attractive classmate, who then offers you a ride home. As your conversation continues, a crush blossoms. All you can think about is how to see them again.
When you get out of the car outside your house, you unwittingly leave your wallet and phone under the passenger seat. Once you realize, you look up your classmate in the class directory so you can get in touch to reclaim your possessions.
Maybe you didn’t actually think, “I’ll leave my stuff in the car so we can meet up later.” Still, psychoanalytic reasoning might suggest this desire drove you to “forget” these things so you could have a reason to contact your classmate.
This is what most people think of when they hear about Freudian slips — slip-ups in your speaking that don’t make much sense.
Remember your coworker Carl Nottingham? Perhaps instead of simply forgetting his name, you consistently use the wrong name. You substitute Twickingham, Birmingham, Nortonsen — to the point where your inability to remember becomes a running joke in the office.
This doesn’t happen intentionally. Your brain is simply attempting to find a compromise between your conscious and unconscious thoughts.
In modern culture, Freudian slips — mainly spoken distortions — are often assumed to have sexual undertones. This is probably at least partially due to people associating Freud with his work on psychosexual development.
“So, I’ll lick you up after work then?” you might say to your partner. It doesn’t take a great leap of reasoning to understand where this came from, especially if you’ve planned a sexy rendezvous for the evening.
Slip-ups of a sexual nature are pretty common. You might substitute “erection” for “eruption” during your geology presentation, or say “vaginal” instead of “virginal” when reading aloud.
Psychoanalysis would most likely trace these back to thoughts of sex lurking just below your conscious mind.
The very nature of Freudian slips makes them difficult to study in a research setting, primarily because they happen so randomly.
If they do relate to unconscious desires, as Freud suggested, researchers would need to explore your unconscious mind in order to find support for the existence of those desires.
Because psychoanalysis holds that slips happen as a momentary lapse in your ability to keep those thoughts suppressed, research would also require a closer look at this internal conflict.
Since experts have limited means of measuring unconscious thoughts and internal conflict, they have yet to find conclusive evidence that Freudian slips are a direct result of any unconscious urges or impulses you may have.
They reported that some association between slips and associated thoughts appeared to exist, encouraging future research on the topic. However, they also pointed out the numerous flaws in their studies, emphasizing the difficulty in finding meaningful results. And at this point, the research is more than 2 decades old.
Researchers did note, however, an apparent link between sex-related guilt and Freudian slips of a sexual nature. People with higher levels of sexual guilt seem to make more of these errors, possibly because they feel internally conflicted over whether to avoid or seek out people they feel attracted to. But again, these aren’t firm findings.
If Freudian slips don’t happen as a result of our deepest desires finally asserting themselves, then what does cause them? Consider this handful of plausible, if slightly less intriguing, explanations.
If you’ve ever tried to write something down while listening to someone talk about something completely unrelated, you may have ended up jotting down some of their words instead.
Say you’re chatting with friends but your mind has drifted off to consider what you’ll wear on your date later. You snap back to attention when your friend waves a hand in front of your face, asking “Are you even listening?”
“Yes! Sorry! I was absolutely dressing,” you say, revealing where your thoughts actually were.
Remember that attractive classmate who gave you a ride home? You could’ve easily left your wallet and phone behind because you were so distracted by your new crush that you forgot to check for those essentials when getting out of the car.
Language — any language — can be complex. By adulthood, you know thousands of words, so it’s pretty reasonable to mix some up from time to time.
Like any other system, the brain networks responsible for speech occasionally make errors. This is completely normal. You might notice it when the sound of a later word creeps forward into an earlier word, for example. This might produce a word ranging from nonsensical to downright naughty.
Spoonerisms, or swaps between initial word sounds, can also result: “You kissed the last mite” rather than “You missed the last kite.”
The power of suggestion
If you’ve ever tried to put something specific out of your mind, you can probably confirm it often pops right back up in your thoughts.
The very act of trying not to think about something can make it even more likely you’ll think about it, as one experiment proved.
Say you really need a bathroom and someone says, “OK, just don’t think about waterfalls.” It’s pretty safe to say you’ll immediately start thinking about waterfalls — and rushing rivers and rain showers.
When you have something on your mind, you might notice it slips into conversation in a similar way. You know how someone saying “try not to worry about it” can make you even more anxious? It’s kind of like that.
So you’ve made a Freudian slip or two. Don’t worry about it too much — most people make them pretty regularly. Even if you said something bordering on inappropriate to a roomful of people, those who noticed will probably forget about it pretty quickly.
Accidentally calling your parent by your partner’s name or saying “I’m thrilled to eat you” doesn’t mean you’ve got anything troubling or sinister dwelling in your subconscious. More often than not, it probably just means your thoughts are elsewhere.