What It Really Means When You Have A Freudian Slip

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
There you were, just admiring Ronda Rousey's utterly impressive abs, when you texted your friend about wanting a six-pack of your own. Unfortunately, you said "sex pack" instead (and no, it wasn't autocorrect's fault). If you're a human, that's probably not the first time that kind of thing has happened. But do these annoying mistakes — a.k.a. Freudian slips — actually reveal some sort of secret about you?

Sigmund Freud, who invented psychoanalysis, thought these little slip-ups were bits of your dark, disgusting, and sex-obsessed subconscious eking out through normal conversations. He basically suspected that thing you said but didn't mean to say hinted at repressed thoughts that you didn't plan on disclosing. (Or, according to the quintessential definition, a Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but mean your mother.)

However, these days researchers don't give too much credence to many of Freud's ideas (hysteria, anyone?), and the slips are no different. Instead, cognitive psychologists tend to believe that parapraxis, the technical term for a Freudian slip, offers a window into not your deepest, darkest secrets, but the way your brain processes language. And, sure, sometimes that means your biology teacher might say "orgasm" instead of "organism."

One of the earliest studies to actually test this idea was published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research back in 1979. Some of the participants in the study (who were all heterosexual men) had to read a list of pairs of nonsense words in the presence of an attractive lab assistant: a woman wearing "a very short skirt and sort of a translucent blouse,” Michael Motley, PhD, one of the authors on the study, explained to the BBC. The other participants took the same test but in the presence of an older male .

Participants in the sexually charged scenario made about the same number of errors as those in the control condition. But they were more likely to make errors involving sex-related words, such as saying "good legs" rather than "lood gegs."

However, in another experiment in the same study, some participants were told they would receive an electric shock (don't worry, they never did) while doing their word test. The anxiety from anticipating the shock was enough to cause them to make word errors, such as saying "bad shock" rather than "shad bock." So these errors definitely aren't purely sexual.

As Jena Pincott writes at Psychology Today, Freudian slips are "just banana peels in the path of a sentence, accidental shifts of linguistic units."And it makes sense that we're much more likely to mix up words that have a lot of letters and sounds in common, such as "best" and "breast," rather than two totally unrelated words — the cognitive paths that lead you to those words are very similar.

We're also more likely to make these linguistic mistakes when we're stressed, tired, or drunk. Basically, whenever our normal conscious defences against saying something dumb are dulled, word errors like these may sneak out.

There is still some value in seeing Freudian slips the way Freud intended, though. For instance, your psychotherapist may want to dig into any language errors you make during therapy sessions, where the way we interpret our mistakes is often more important than the mistakes themselves.

So if you think there may be something deeper to your slip-up, that's definitely worth exploring. But you can rest assured that the next time you accidentally tell your waiter you want some "bed" instead of "bread," that's not necessarily a sign that you're secretly in love with him.
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