Are Freudian Slips Real or Just Another Female Undergarment?

If my friend “Buffalo Bob” were still alive he could tell you a tale about Freudian slips. He learned the challenging way we all learn essential lessons, an awkward episode I will recount.

My better-half and I were having dinner at Bob’s place — the home my grad school alum occupied with his second wife. This was our first chance to meet her. Before he divorced the mother of his children, of course, the future Steins spent many a double-date with Robert and his first spouse Karen.

On this occasion we shared old stories about our school days at NU’s Psychology Department. A swell time was had by all until Bob turned to Mate #2 and called her by Mate #1’s name.

Oh no!

The temperature in the room descended in the direction of numbers common at the South Pole. The hostess soon vanished and the remaining three of us finished the feast by ourselves.

An embarrassment, for sure. But a carrier of hidden meaning? Was there some unconscious animus toward the current spouse? Did the psychologist equate her to the dark lady of yesteryear? Or did Bob miss his early love?

Perhaps none of these.

Here is an alternative interpretation: Remember, Bob and I were talking about our four-year quest for a Ph.D. and the people we palled around with way back. What notable female name most claimed my chum’s attention at the time? Karen. The conversation triggered the old habit of saying her name.

To my mind nothing sinister underpinned the mistake, though I was sympathetic to the lady’s upset. Her husband never made unflattering comparisons to her predecessor, harbored no buried wish to hurt his present love; a woman who, everyone agreed, was a far better match for him than he’d made at school.

Let’s take a different approach, a statistical one, in defense of my amigo’s utterance. The research evidence says written Freudian slips are random missteps. When we write penis for peanuts, slap for slip, or breast for best, the misstatements lack significance unless we make much of them.

Whence comes this information? Seth Stephens-Davidowitz gives the answer in his book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Stephens-Davidowitz studied

more than 40,000 typing errors collected by Microsoft researchers. The agglomeration included mistakes people make but then immediately correct. In these tens of thousands of errors, there were plenty of individuals committing errors of a sexual sort. (Things like,) ‘sexurity’ for ‘security’ and ‘cocks’ instead of ‘rocks.’ But there were also plenty of innocent slips. People wrote of ‘pindows’ and ‘fegetables,’ ‘aftermoons’ and ‘refriderators.’

The researcher created a computer program to mistakenly switch particular letters in the way his sample did. For instance, replacing ‘”a t with an s , a g with an h as often as people do.

This social scientist wanted to see how the machine would handle words vulnerable to Freudian slips: terms like rocks and peanuts, etc. Put another way, if the supposed verbal missteps made by humans are driven by the unconscious, the device should have produced fewer such slip-ups than people would have.

Rather, the software generated sexually-tinged blunders at the same rate as the rest of us, all without the subconscious reasons Homo sapiens alone possess.

The study suggests Freud was wrong. I’ll admit, however, oral communication around a sexually attractive person might be a different matter. More research will tell us, I’m sure.

No matter the applause I’ve received for psychological wisdom, with passing time the more I realize the limits of our comprehension of ourselves and others. We approximate. We simplify. We project our motives on to parents, children, and neighbors.

Human nature causes us to whitewash the sins of those we like, and inflate those of ones we suspect. Each day would be too fraught if it required everyone to treat all casual interactions as fact-finding espionage missions of desperate importance. Freudian slips, in a small way, make us think we are wise when we aren’t.

Imperfect understanding of acquaintances is serviceable enough to help us through most days, but sometimes we miss not the bull’s eye, but the whole target.

Humanity is prone to believe it understands the totality of another’s character based on limited experience. Our slice of his way of being — say, in a daytime working group — might not tell us what he is like by himself or when the night is late or he is intoxicated and in love. Who knows what manner of creature he will be when giving a speech, playing a game, or in an emergency?

Everyday errors in predicting how he reacts under pressure should be no shock; nor his reaction when torn between duty and desire. The secrets of another, from us and from himself, cannot be x-rayed or scooped out for study like ice cream in the freezer.

Remember this: sometimes a Freudian slip is a meaningless bungle or blunder spoken without aim, like a banana peel waiting to tip us over.

Even better, a slip of the tongue to make us laugh at ourselves.

Bob laughed at himself a lot.

—–

The image on the CD cover featured at the top is by Yuly Perevezentsev. It comes from his Architectural Fantasies. To me, it looks like a reimagining of “The Tower of Babel.”

31 thoughts on “Are Freudian Slips Real or Just Another Female Undergarment?

  1. Hi, Dr. S! Your post was very insightful and funny. I kept thinking about all the times I accidentally typed pubic instead of public. In this case, I think it was “just another female undergarment.” LOL

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    • Glad you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had to think about a few things and sleep on it before I responded to other areas of your post. There is much to consider when it comes to prediction, prevention, assessment, and motive. When I think about DID, I consider the parts of myself who recall information both consciously and unconsciously when presented with something familiar – a function they took care of, a purpose for their existence beyond trigger cues. Fear motivates, but a human’s purpose for existence also motivates us to act. Who am I in this world, to others, and to myself? What I would say or do in one context with one person may not be what I would say or do in another context with the same person. If this last statement is true, then prediction becomes a matter of context, if and only if the context represents exactly the same variables. The problem with context as a predictor variable for human behavior, given past behavioral assumptions, is the assumption that the human has not grown or learned from past experiences, or the assumption that the human has grown and therefore should be developed in accordance with their age range. It assumes all intelligence forms are equal or centered on cognition, as opposed to SQ and EQ forms, or even other hypothesized forms when considering creativity, talents, physical abilities, etc. Some predictions could be non-significant when we misjudge a person’s level of intelligence, a person’s growth or lack thereof, a person’s susceptibility to stereotype threat and/or suggestion, and a person’s motive in terms of purpose for living. These are just a few of many thoughts I have on the subject of prediction, as it relates to Freudian slips. Honestly, I forgot the mechanisms of Freudian slips, even though I am aware of what they are. I think Freudian slips exist, but I also consider how they do not exist in certain contexts.

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    • The word “public” was the bane of my existence as a newspaper editor. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. But… Are computer programs really free from motive or are they, too, an extension of human unconsciousness or unconsciousness when they are programmed by humans? What could be potential confounds in the experiement you mentioned? Are unconscious or subconscious thoughts free from information processing? Are computer programs a reflection of unconscious or subconscious information processing when deliberately manipulated to perhaps process like we hypothesize Freudian slips process? Can the unconscious or subconscious become conscious when deliberately manipulated to break some human cognitive barrier, as perhaps also evidenced by the extension of humans’ psychosocial or psychosexual processes through computer programming? How then can we determine if a cigar is just a cigar when other factors are at play? Is it possible to convince someone that a cigar is not only a cigar through mere suggestion, and only through mere suggestion – not before?

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    • I will offer a simple answer. If the computer program the researcher made does what he says — objectively reproduce switching letters as his sample did — then, under similar conditions as the original typing errors were made, the result of the study should produce a good test of his hypothesis. Forty-thousand errors is quite a sample size! I don’t have some of the answers you are looking for: under what conditions were the errors made, would there be conditions that the keyboarders would produce a different error rate or errors on different letters and words. You are free to search out Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s paper and/or communicate directly with him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Dr. S. I will check that out. I think I was getting at the language and the words themselves. If humans created words and language, then perhaps humans could subconsciously create words so close in spelling to psychosexual words or phrases. I wonder what cross-cultural differences there would be if the experiment were conducted in other languages.

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      • Ah, now I get it, Multinomial. I think it is important to remember that one of the ways to value any hypothesis or understanding of people or things is to be able to make the hypothesis or understanding testable. That is, capable of being invalidated by a good experimental design. As you know, the inability to do so has long been a criticism of many of the ideas of Freud, Jung, etc. So, I guess the question for us is to ask ourselves how we might test what you are suggesting. Thanks for this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Dr. S. Your explanation of falsification helps me to better understand it, too. I ask questions that help me understand research methods more. But it would be interesting to find out that Freud was wrong about some things, at least in certain contexts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • One more thought to add. I forgot that implicit tests are supposedly ways to test some of Freud’s theories/hypotheses, I believe. But even then, I question the validity and reliability of such tests.

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      • Are you speaking of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test or something else?

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      • I was thinking about a few of them, like the IAT and NLT, in addition to Harvard’s one on implicit biases I think. I am not sure if there are others, and I do not know if any of them connect with Freud’s theories, but it was just a thought.

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      • IAT is the Implicit Association Test developed by Harvard. I don’t know what the acronym NLT refers to.

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      • Name Letter Test for self-esteem.

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      • Interesting. I’ve not heard of any use of the IAT in the interpretation of examples of Freudian slips, only as an overall measure of one’s tendency to harbor attitudes that one might not be aware of. Of course, such an attitude might make one more prone to such slips. The NLT is new to me.

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      • There is another IAT test that looks at self-esteem I think. Or maybe I have the acronymns wrong. None of them test Freudian slips, and I was going to try and look up the research you cited earlier in a comment, regarding the comparison between humans and the computer program, which seems implicit, but I wanted to know if you knew of any other tests that look at Freudian slips, in particular, implicit tests, if that is even possible. If Freud was wrong, then maybe the test results could reveal something as well.

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      • Oops. I forgot that IAT was developed from Harvard. I just remember having to code it only.

        What I was wondering was if there were any implicit tests that look at Freudian slips. I have not looked up the research you suggested yet, but I plan to soon.

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      • My brain is fuzzy on all this since I have not actually read into as much, so I think I am trying to connect the dots. If cognitive associations represent something familiar from the past that exacts a behavior similar to the past, and it is not necessarily a Freudian slip, that could also mean a flaw in any design testing for Freudian slips when the assumption is not always correct. I am not explaining this well, as I have not slept due to watching April the Giraffe’s labor. But I couldn’t help but think about your post. It means a lot for people who disagree with an assumption that what they said, like an ex’s name, is not due to a Freudian slip, but maybe due to a trigger that prompted a previous connected verbal behavior. I wished I had learned more about language and cognition. This is interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like the “Tower of Babel” depiction. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For as long as I’ve known about Freudian Slips I’ve believed that we humans just sometimes make blunders without it having to be some subconscious truth. Sometimes I make these “slips” and it can happen for a variety of reasons. I could be tired and my brain is a bit slow on the uptake, a sign on a door enters my awareness at the exact moment I’m speaking, etc. There could be tons of reasons.

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  5. You have been ahead of the curve, my dear. Not everyone takes so wise a view as you and some folks tie themselves in knots asking, “What does that REALLY mean?”

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  6. Yea! I’m glad to see you are writing again! Keep ’em coming.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks, Joan. I will still write, but probably not with the regularity of the past.

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  8. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes it isn’t. The only way to know for sure is in analysis. Good to have you back.

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  9. Thanks, Harvey.

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  10. Over the years, I’ve made and continue to make tons of Freudian slips. Some are, indeed, meaningless, but those with sexual connotations can be quite embarrassing when one is a young single woman speaking with an older man.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. No doubt. And as Bob would tell us if he could, painful for both the man who made them and his wife. Thanks, Rosaliene.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I just happened to check your blog tonight to see if you had written anything, and you are back! I think you missed us. 😉 I had thought of you on occasion, wondering if you were enjoying your retirement, but selfishly, I am happy you have emerged.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Nancy. Glad you checked. I don’t think I’ll be writing as often, but I’ve not yet vanished.

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