"Freudian Slips" and Other Errors

Freud believed errors of all types were revealing. Like defense mechanisms, errors come in many varieties. Freudian slips are errors of language such as word substitutions and mispronunciations. Sometimes they involve sex, but that is not part of the definition. A Freudian slip is defined as any language error that is unintentionally revealing.

What are Freudian slips? Must they deal with sex?

My roommate and I have been best friends for a couple of years now. After deciding to attend the same college we thought it would be great to be roommates. This arrangement turned out to be just fine for the first term or so, but that was it! We both noticed our friendship was going downhill. After this went on for some time, we decided to sit down and have a talk. I had been drinking that night so all my feelings were in the air. My roommate suggested he get a private room next year. I then blurted out that it would be fine with me: "You get yourself a potted room." That was the Freudian slip: potted room.

You see, my roommate smokes pot frequently, so naturally he would stash it all over the room. At the beginning of the term this made me quite uncomfortable, but after a while I guess I learned to live with it. That's what I thought. Evidently I had learned to live with it, but not in my subconscious. [Author's files]

What is "overdetermination" and how does it resemble a modern concept?

The words involved in a Freudian slip usually resemble each other in form and function. For example, "potted" and "private" are both adjectives with two syllables starting with "p." Freud recognized this and maintained that most errors had several causes that worked together to create the error. He called this overdetermination of an error. This resembles a modern idea about how memory retrieval takes place, through an intersecting association process. The word "potted" (by this interpretation) lies at the intersection of several associations: (1) starts with "p", (2) has two syllables, (3) fits into the sentence, and (4) has to do with the roommate problem. So the word "potted" was accidentally retrieved and inserted into the sentence.

Erdelyi (1981) found a Freudian slip in an article criticizing Freudian concepts. Erdelyi had previously written an article titled: "Let us not sweep repression under the rug," a title which was itself a play on words. But when Loftus and Loftus (1980) cited the paper, while arguing against repressed memories, they rendered the title as, "Let us now sweep repression under the rug." To Erdelyi, that was exactly what they were trying to do, so he saw this error as an amusing Freudian slip.

What are some other types of "revealing errors," besides word substitutions?

Less well-known than Freudian slips are the errors of mishearing or misreading something. For example, one student (who had been dating another girl secretly) was driving along in the car with his supposed girlfriend. She started looking for something in her purse and he heard her say, "You two-timing bastard." As it turned out, she wanted to use the mirror on the car's visor and she had said something like, "Turn on the dashboard [light]." The student wrote, "I guess I heard what I heard because I was afraid she had found out about the other girl."

Another type of meaningful error, according to Freud, is forgetfulness. Freud said we often forget things for a reason. Motivated forgetting is a concept well documented in psychology and recognized in everyday life. For example, workers at dental offices know they have to call patients the day before an appointment, because otherwise patients commonly forget to show up. Freud would say this is because on some level they want to forget a dental appointment.

How can motivated forgetting or losing things reflect an "unconscious wish"?

Losing things can be revealing if the loss occurs "accidentally on purpose." Freud said people sometimes lose a valuable thing they borrowed because, unconsciously, they rebel at giving it back. On other occasions, a loss might reflect an unconscious wish to get rid of something.

A student who raised her hand during a discussion of meaningful losses supplied an example. She said, "What would Freud say about this? I threw my wedding ring away while I was sleepwalking the first night I was married!" Not wanting to say, "That means you don't want to be married," I said, "Freud would probably make a lot out of that, but not all errors are meaningful." In this case, however, the student was divorced within a year.

Freud also discussed a type of error he called the erroneous idea. This occurs when a person who knows better makes a revealing mistake involving factual or autobiographical knowledge. For example, you might report your home town as the town where you grew up as a child, rather than the town where you currently live, if the two are different. This might reveal a yearning for the conditions of childhood. Freud also thought people who remembered their own ages incorrectly were unconsciously desiring to be older or younger.

What is an "erroneous idea"?

All the Freudian windows to the unconscious have in common an intrusion into conscious life of some thought or emotion (Freud would say an urge or desire) that is normally outside of awareness, or which a person is struggling not to think about. Such errors can be revealing if they reflect mental activity going on under the surface.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey