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.
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.
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.”