Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Modern Day Freudian Slips

George H. W. Bush once made the following classic Freudian slip in a public speech: "For seven and a half years I've worked alongside President Reagan, and I'm proud to have been his partner. We've had triumphs. We've made some mistakes. We've had some sex -- setbacks." When the audience erupts in laughter, you can't help but feel a little bad for the guy, who appears to have a minor heart-attack if you watch his chest closely (see the video here).

Rather than revealing that Bush unconsciously wished to have intimate relations with Reagan, as a Freudian interpretation might suggest, this slip was more likely an example of a speech error called a deletion, which involves omitting a word or part of a word. In this case, "ba" was inadvertently omitted from "setbacks." Speech errors like this are common (though generally less embarrassing), and they are especially likely to occur when people are tired, nervous, or otherwise not at their peak level of cognitive functioning. Linguists argue that speech errors reflect the complex way that language is organized and produced, and are unlikely to reflect repressed desires or conflicts. But that doesn't mean that speech errors are always psychologically meaningless.

The extent to which a given thought happens to be on one's mind, conscious or not, can bias subsequent language production and comprehension. Word completion tasks, for example, are often used to assess the cognitive accessibility of a construct, particularly those that individuals are likely to lack conscious access to, such as death or suicide. In an older study conducted by Motley and Baars (1979), male participants who believed they might receive an electric shock were more likely to make shock-related slips (e.g., misreading "shad bock" as "bad shock"), whereas those who were in the presence of an attractive and provocatively dressed female experimenter were more likely to mistake phrases like "lood-gegs" for "good legs." These findings, as well as a handful of others from the same time period, are aligned with Freud's observation that slips of the tongue may reveal more about a speaker's internal mental state than whatever it was he or she intended to say. More recent research also supports the idea that avoiding certain thoughts may make them even more apparent: Daniel Wegner's theory of ironic processes of mental control suggests that efforts to suppress unwanted thoughts or behaviors can, ironically, increase their likelihood of their resurfacing, in dreams or other forms.

Although the Freudian interpretation of slips has been largely discounted in cognitive psychology, it remains widely accepted in popular culture. For example, if using the wrong name could just be a byproduct of semantic or phonetic overlap, why doesn't Emily forgive Ross for calling her "Rachel" (the name of his ex) at their wedding (see Friends Season 4)? Maybe because even if the mistake does not reflect Ross's repressed desire for Rachel (which it probably does, in this case), it does at least suggest that Rachel is on his mind, which might be acceptable in another context but not so much during his wedding to someone else. Along similar lines, Condoleezza Rice's accidental near-reference to George W. Bush as "my husband" led many to speculate about the emotional significance of this "poignant faux pas."

Modern forms of communication, particularly those that leave little time for editing or forethought (texting, chatting, tweeting, etc), lend themselves well to seemingly Freudian and otherwise revealing slips. After mis-tweeting Silicon Valley as "Silicone Valley," Kanye West openly admitted, "I guess I was still thinking about the other type of silicone." The autocorrect function on iphones has also been known to produce embarrassing errors, as in the example above, as well as other more devastating mistakes. Although some of these mistakes seem too random (or horrific) to be meaningful, blaming autocorrect sometimes seems like a convenient excuse for the more traditional typo - or perhaps a glimpse into your texting history. There is also, of course, the nightmare of sending a sensitive email to the worst possible recipient(s) because of an accidental email address "autocomplete," or the dangerous proximity of certain letters on a keyboard (for this reason, writing "brb" is probably wiser than "one sec" when chatting). An if you're a newscaster or otherwise happen to be caught on camera, live slips of the tongue can turn into viral youtube videos. If Freud were alive today, he would probably have a field day.

The Tolman Breezeway
Most of us have experienced bizarre slips at some point in our lives, and, like dreams, they do sometimes feel like they must reveal something important about our inner psyche. Here is a personal example that just happened a moment ago: I was quickly glancing over at my email and I thought I saw the words "TOLMAN DOOR COMES CRASHING..." in an email subject line. Tolman Hall houses the Psychology department at Berkeley, which is where I work, so of course I was alarmed. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that the subject said "TOLMAN DOOR COMBOS CHANGED." Although I cannot know this for sure, my sense is that the misread was related to my underlying fears about the building's safety and ability to withstand even a minor earthquake (see this non-reassuring article). Although I have tried not to consciously dwell on these fears, they seem to have taken this opportunity to make themselves known.

When it comes to Freud, there is sometimes a tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but it may be worth further exploring the circumstances under which speech errors have psychological significance beyond their what they reveal about language and speech production. Even if these special cases are found in only a small minority of slips, they may represent valuable opportunities to learn about the inner-workings of our own and others' minds. In the case described above, for example, I learned that I really need to get my earthquake anxiety under control. Or at least just steer clear of Tolman Hall.

Further reading:

Erard M (2007). Linguistics. Read my slips: speech errors show how language is processed. Science (New York, N.Y.), 317 (5845), 1674-6 PMID: 17885109

Motley MT, & Baars BJ (1979). Effects of cognitive set upon laboratory induced verbal (Freudian) slips. Journal of speech and hearing research, 22 (3), 421-32 PMID: 502504

The Psychology of Everyday Life, by Sigmund Freud

White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, by Daniel Wegner

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