What's Really Happening When You Have a Freudian Slip

Embarrassed young woman covering her mouth

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A Freudian slip, or parapraxis, is a verbal or memory mistake that is believed to be linked to the unconscious mind. These slips supposedly reveal secret thoughts and feelings that people hold. Typical examples include an individual calling their spouse by an ex's name, saying the wrong word, or even misinterpreting a written or spoken word.

What Are Freudian Slips?

It was the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who described a variety of different types and examples of Freudian slips in his 1901 book, "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life." Freud wrote that speech blunders are the result of a "disturbing influence of something outside of the intended speech" like an unconscious thought, belief, or wish.

He also addressed the problem of forgetting names, saying that it may sometimes be related to repression. In his view, unacceptable thoughts or beliefs are withheld from conscious awareness, and these slips help reveal what is hidden in the unconscious.

The Original Freudian Slip

Freud based his idea on his work with a young man who misquoted a Latin phrase from "The Aeneid." The young man had dropped one of the Latin words when he repeated it, and Freud believed that dropping the word offered a revealing look into his unconscious mind.

Through psychoanalysis, Freud determined that the word reminded the young man of blood, which he believed was linked to a pregnancy scare the man had experienced with his girlfriend. Freud suggested that the man had blocked out the word because it reminded him of this negative experience.

Why Do Freudian Slips Happen?

We don't know exactly why Freudian slips happen and, since they require an impromptu mistake on the part of the speaker, they are difficult to test. However, there are a few possible explanations for why they happen and what they really mean.

Thought Suppression

Some research does support Freud's theory that unconscious or even suppressed thoughts can increase the likelihood of verbal slips.

For example, one 1979 study found that people who thought they might receive an electric shock were more likely to make shock-related verbal mistakes. Those who were near an attractive female experimenter were also more likely to mistake nonsense phrases for words related to beautiful women.

In a famous 1987 experiment, participants who had been asked specifically not to think about a white bear tended to think of the animal quite frequently—an average of once per minute. Based on these findings, psychologist Daniel Wegner developed what he referred to as a "theory of ironic process" to explain why suppressing certain thoughts can be so difficult.

While certain parts of the brain suppress the hidden thoughts, another part of our minds occasionally "checks in" to make sure that we are still not thinking about it—ironically bringing the very thoughts we are trying to keep hidden to the forefront of our minds.

In many cases, the harder we try not to think of something, the more frequently it springs to mind—and the more likely we are to express it verbally. This paradox of thought suppression can be particularly disruptive for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Language Processing

Verbal mistakes may also be related to the way our brains process language. We silently edit our words before we speak, monitoring ourselves for mistakes or inappropriate language. This process happens constantly; Freudian slips may be moments where the process failed and a mistake slipped out before the brain was able to catch it.

People make around one to two errors for every 1,000 words they say. This amounts to somewhere between seven and 22 verbal slip-ups during the average day, depending on how much a person talks. While Freud imparted a great deal of hidden meaning in these errors, verbal mistakes may simply be an inevitable part of life.

Examples of Freudian Slips in Popular Culture

Today, we often use the term Freudian slip in a humorous way when a person makes a mistake in speech (especially one with sexual undertones). You’ve probably heard plenty of amusing slips of the tongue in your own life. Think about the time your biology teacher accidentally uttered "orgasm" instead of "organism," or the time you accidentally told someone you were “Sad to meet you!” instead of “Glad to meet you!”

Verbal gaffes also provide plenty of amusement when spoken by famous figures, especially when such moments are captured on film.

Here are just a few modern examples of famous Freudian slips:

  • During a Vatican sermon in 2014, Pope Francis accidentally used the Italian word "cazzo" (which can translate to either "penis" or "f***") instead of "caso" (which means "example"). The Pope quickly corrected himself, but not before the mistake was shared on dozens of websites, blogs, and YouTube videos.
  • During a televised speech on education, Senator Ted Kennedy meant to say that "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the best and brightest." Instead, Kennedy accidentally said "breast"—his hands even cupping the air as he said the word. While he quickly corrected his gaffe and continued, the slip of the tongue seemed revealing considering his hand gestures and the family's reputation for womanizing.
  • At a Washington, D.C., dinner party, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor to President Bush, stated, “As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush.” The Freudian slip seemed to reveal some hidden feelings the unmarried Rice might perhaps hold toward her boss.
  • When actress Amanda Seyfried appeared on the Today show to promote the film Ted 2, co-host Willie Geist accidentally described her character as "titsy" rather than "ditzy." Besides simply being an amusing slip, the comment perhaps revealed what was really on his mind.
3 Sources
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  1. Motley MT, Baars BJ. Effects of cognitive set upon laboratory induced verbal (Freudian) slips. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 1979;22(3):421-432. doi:10.1044/jshr.2203.421

  2. Wegner DM, Schneider DJ, Carter SR, White TL. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987;53(1):5-13. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.53.1.5

  3. Psychology Today. Slips of the tongue.