What is a Freudian Slip?

slip of the tongue

Freudian slips, also known as parapraxes (sing. parapraxis) are speech errors that are believed to reveal what is in a person’s unconscious mind. They are named after Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and arguably the most influential and controversial theorist associated with the field of psychology.  Freud proposed that the mind consists of three layers – the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. In his theory, the unconscious is a storehouse for memories, thoughts, motives  and desires that are too painful or anxiety-provoking for a person to think about consciously. Although individuals try to repress such material and confine it to the realm of the unconscious, Freud suggested that it continues to influence their conscious life and often emerges into awareness via several routes, mainly through dreams and slips of the tongue. [showmyads]

On the surface, slips of the tongue may be viewed as simple mistakes or accidents. In a psychoanalytic sense, however, they are symbols that have much deeper personal significance. Freud believed that when a person utters something other than what they really intended to say, it is no accident but rather their unconscious thoughts which have broken through the censorship of the mind and emerged into consciousness. For example, a woman who calls her boyfriend by an ex’s name might be viewed as secretly desiring her ex, while a person who mistakenly refers to President Obama as President Osama might be viewed as harbouring negative feelings toward the President.

Although slips of the tongue are the errors most popularly believed to carry hidden meanings , Freud’s original use of the term ‘parapraxis’ included a wider range of mistakes in daily behaviour – errors in reading and writing, forgetting someone’s name, mislaying an object, or failing to perform a particular action.  Freudian slips, however, are the most commonly occurring form of parapraxis and are often used as a source of humor in movies and television shows. The following video clip shows a set of Freudian slips that actually occurred on live television. As you will see, these slips are often sexual in nature… but who would expect anything less of a phenomenon associated with Freud?

Although a psychoanalytic explanation of the Freudian slip is still valued by many, modern theorists have proposed alternative explanations for these slips of the tongue. For instance, in one case cited by Reason (2000), a politician who was asked to speak at the opening of a new building for clinical psychologists, ended his speech by saying: “I declare this Department of Cynical – er, I mean Clinical – Psychologists open.” Given their background in psychology, some in the audience would likely have concluded that this slip of the tongue was no mere accident but revealed what the speaker truly believed about clinical psychologists. This belief surely makes the incident seem much more interesting, but Reason (2000) proposed a few ‘duller alternatives’. Firstly, in a linguistic sense, the words clinical and cynical have very similar structures and the first syllables of both words have a similar sound. Thus, from a cognitive perspective, the word cynical might have been activated as a result of its phonological association with the word clinical, making the error an easy one. Secondly, the word ‘cynical’ is quite likely more salient for a politician than the word ‘clinical’, making it likely that the error occurred as a result of cognitive processes rather than unconscious forces.

Freud himself acknowledged that not every mistake was a symbolic revelation of the unconscious. He conceded, perhaps half-heartedly, that there were a set of ‘psycho-physiological factors’ – such as fatigue, excitement and distractions – which by themselves could account for a few errors in speech (Reason, 2000).  Nevertheless, he remained convinced that unconscious forces were at the heart of such errors in the majority of cases.

So what are we to believe? Is there any real truth to Sigmund Fraud’s – I mean Freud’s – idea that most, if not all, errors in speech reveal hidden thoughts and desires?  The answer is probably a matter of opinion. Like many other concepts in Freud’s theory, it is difficult to subject the idea of the Freudian slip to rigid scientific investigation. The workings of the unconscious mind are not directly observable and therefore can only be understood by means of inferences, which on their own are not very reliable. You would likely agree, however, that Freud was on to something. You may even have experienced for yourself those instances where you ‘say one thing but mean your mother.’ Still, it would be ludicrous to assume that every slip of the tongue gives us a peek into the most hidden recesses of the mind. Many cases of speech errors are likely attributable to simple cognitive mechanisms, with no latent meaning, no underlying connotation, no hidden significance. In fact, if you constantly discern some hidden sexual or aggressive undertones in other people’s mistakes, it might reveal more about you than it does about the other person. Then again, that’s just one opinion. The Cynical Psychologists might disagree.


Reason, J. (2000). The Freudian slip revisited. The Psychologist, 13(12), 610-611.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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