A Freudian slip is when a person is speaking and suddenly a word they did not intend to say aloud accidently slips out.
Freud believed that these “slips of the tongue” (parapraxis), reveal the person’s inner thoughts and feelings or the impulses of the id. In some cases, they may reveal content of the individual’s subconscious.
A Freudian slip doesn’t have to be verbal. It can include non-verbal behavior, forgetting, or even a misinterpretation of something said or written.
Freudian Slip Definition
Freud is often quoted as saying that slips of the tongue demonstrate a “disturbing influence of something outside of the intended speech.”
The full quote, from his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), is more elaborate:
“I almost invariably discover a disturbing influence in addition which comes from something outside the intended utterance; and the disturbing element is either a single thought that has remained unconscious, which manifests itself in the slip of the tongue…” (p. 84).
This quote is also available:
“Every time we make a slip in talking or writing we may infer that there has been a disturbance due to mental processes lying outside our intention” (p. 285).
Freudian Slip Examples
- Revealing your Love: In a conversation with several others, Ada intends to say how much she loves chocolate. Instead, she blunders and says how much he loves Charlie, who happens to be sitting across from her.
- Mother Issues: Dr. Jenkins was giving a psychology lecture and defining Freudian slip: “A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but mean your mother.” He quickly corrected himself, using the word “another” instead.
- Dreading the Payment: When writing a check for $500 dollars to fix her car, Sumni accidentally writes “five hundread” dollars.
- Don’t Mention his Baldness: A waitress is delivering a breakfast side order for a male customer that has an exceptionally shiny, bald head. As she is placing the plate on the table she says, “here is your bald egg.” Of course, she meant to say, “here is your boiled egg.”
- Attraction to Blondes: A well-off, handsome and single, stock fund manager is speaking with one of his clients about their portfolio: “I’ve been reinvesting your earnings into dividend stocks and blondes.”
- Unhappy Greeting: Lisa did not really want her fiancé to invite his ex-wife to their wedding. They had argued about it for weeks. When he introduced her, she accidentally said “So mad to meet you.”
- Office Romance: A manager was talking to an employee and accidentally said, “I’d love to take you out on a date” instead of “I’d love to take you out to lunch.”
- Revealing Your Fetish: A woman was having a conversation with her friend about a man she was interested in. Instead of saying, “I really like him,” she said, “I really want to lick him.”
- Awkward Family Reunion: A woman was introducing her husband to her extended family and accidentally called him by her ex-boyfriend’s name, revealing how she secretly isn’t over her ex.
- In need of a Tipple: During a presentation, the speaker who was waiting desperately to get home and crack open a drink intended to say “Our company values innovation,” but instead said, “Our company values inebriation.”
- Getting Clucky: During a conversation with a friend, someone intended to say, “I think I want a dog,” but instead said, “I think I want a baby.”
- Subconscious Anger: During an argument, someone intended to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” but instead said, “I’m sorry, I meant to hurt you.”
- Unintended Disclosure: During a meeting, a manager who deep down feels like he’s overpaid was discussing a new project. He intended to say, “We need to make sure that we’re all on the same page,” but instead said, “We need to make sure that we’re all on the same wage.”
- Giving Up: During a team meeting, a manager (who privately felt like the project was doomed to fail) intended to say, “Let’s delegate these tasks equally,” but instead said, “Let’s delete these tasks equally.”
- Marriage Woes: A husband and wife were talking about seeking resources on how to prevent their regular arguments. The wife, looking online for information, intended to say “I’m seeking a good resource for making us happier” accidentally blurted out “I’m seeking a good divorce for making me happier.”
Freudian Slip Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Political Slip, Freudian Style
Believe it or not, even politicians can commit Freudian slips. They give a lot of speeches and often present a public stance that is not always consistent with their inner beliefs. That’s a situation ripe for slips.
In a not so scandalous example, Condoleezza Rice, when serving as National Security Advisor to President Bush, committed a Freudian slip that made headlines for days.
As reported by Laura Kipnis at Slate, Mrs. Rice was giving a speech at a Washington dinner party and telling a fond story about a recent political gathering.
She began by saying, “As I was telling my husb—as I was telling President Bush.”
Of course, this slip of the tongue could never go without wild speculation from the press and everyday gossipmongers.
Various theories spread like wildfire; ranging from her words revealing a deeper attraction, to others pointing out that a person in her role probably spends more time with the President than their own spouse. Thus, the slip was but a simple accident of frequency.
As with all Freudian slips, there’s no way to know for sure.
2. The Talkative Neighbor
In Freud’s book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he provides numerous examples of Freudian slips he has observed in therapy and daily life.
One colorful description encountered in Germany involved two neighbors.
“A lady who was visiting an acquaintance became very impatient and weary at her tedious and long-winded conversation.”
When she had finally managed to make her way to the door in the front hall and escape, her friend had followed her and “she was detained by a fresh deluge of words.”
Finally, she interrupted and asked:
“‘Are you at home in the front hall (Vorzimmer)?’”
When she saw her friend’s astonished face, she realized her slip of the tongue.
“Weary of being kept standing so long in the front hall she had meant to break off the conversation by asking: ‘Are you at home in the mornings (Vormittag)?’, and her slip betrayed her impatience at the further delay.” (p. 117).
The two German words are quite similar in pronunciation, but have two quite different meanings.
3. Forgetting as Freudian Slip
Although most examples of the Freudian slip involve the substitution of words that represent repressed feelings, omission in the form of forgetting can also reveal one’s inner thoughts.
For example, inevitably in life, we met a wide range of people; some we like and some, perhaps not. However, the social norm of politeness says that we should speak to them when encountered. It is simply rude to not do so.
As Freud explained:
“…there is no surer way of affronting someone than by pretending to forget his name; the insinuation is thus conveyed that the person is so unimportant in our eyes that we cannot be bothered to remember his name” (p. 113).
In other circumstances, some memory lapses may occur because the person represents a threat in a symbolic form:
“…cases where proper names are forgotten there is a type of forgetting which is motivated by repression” (p. 16).
4. Lab-Induced Slips
Freudian slips can occur due to a variety of factors. Although Freud pointed to the role of subconscious impulses, other factors may be involved as well.
To examine this possibility, Motley and Baars (1979) conducted an interesting lab study involving university heterosexual males.
Participants were instructed to read a series of word-pairs silently. Occasionally they would be asked to read the words aloud.
The task was coordinated by a researcher sitting in the room. The researcher was either a middle-aged professor, a seductively dressed female, or a middle-aged professor that had attached electrodes to the fingers of the participants.
These participants were told they may receive a mild shock if making a mistake reading the words.
The results revealed that participants in the electrode condition “made more electricity-type verbal slips than sex-type errors” (p. 421).
However, participants in the seductively dressed condition made more sexually oriented errors than electricity-type errors.
For example, they might say “bare shoulders” instead of reading the word-pair correctly as “share boulders.”
This study demonstrates that slips of the tongue can be induced by anxiety; not only as a result of repressed feelings.
Slips of the Tongue: An Alternative to Freud
There is an alternative explanation to Freudian slips that does not involve repressed impulses or inner feelings. The interpretation is based on how concepts are stored in memory.
For example, according to the spreading activation model of memory (Colins & Loftus, 1975), concepts are stored as nodes and linked according to strength of association.
Concepts that are strongly associated will activate each other.
In addition, concepts that are phonologically similar can also activate each other.
So, when a person commits a Freudian slip involving two words that share similar first phonemes, or similar first syllables, it is because one was activated by mistake.
The famous Freudian slip is when we say one word but intended to say another. According to Freud, these occurrences can give us insight into an individual’s psyche.
The word expressed, seemingly by accident, can reveal the inner thoughts and feelings deeply rooted in our subconscious. They make their way through in the form of a verbal expression or nonverbal gesture; sometimes even a cough can be considered a kind of Freudian slip.
Or, maybe they’re just examples of cognitive mistakes. Phonologically, or conceptually similar words stored in close approximation in our memory network are more likely to activate each other.
Even though there are plenty of examples in the media and most likely in our personal lives, there is no way to determine definitively which explanation is more accurate.
Read Next: Freud’s Personality Theory
Baars, B. J., Berry, J. W., Cohen, J., & Bower, G. H. (1992). Some caveats on testing the Freudian slip hypothesis: Problems in systematic replication. Experimental slips and human error: Exploring the architecture of volition, 289-313.
Collins, A. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading-activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review, 82(6), 407-428.
Dell, G. S. (1995). Speaking and misspeaking. An Invitation to Cognitive Science, 1, 183-208.
Drever, J. (1945). The psychology of everyday life. Methuen and Co. Ltd. London.
Freud, S. (1963). An autobiographical study. WW Norton & Company.
Freud, S. (1901/1989). The psychopathology of everyday life. WW Norton & Company.
Motley, M. T., & Baars, B. J. (1979). Effects of cognitive set upon laboratory induced verbal (Freudian) slips. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 22(3), 421–432. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshr.2203.421