Friday, 30 May 2014

'Freudian Slips' - Theories on illicit slips of the tongue

A 'Freudian slip', also known as a parapraxis, is an error of speech (and memory or physical action in its Wikipedia definition) which Freud stated was a result of interference by an unconscious (dynamically repressed) subdued wish, desire, conflict or train of thought. This dynamic repression occurs because of the regulating influence of the ego and the rules of social behaviour. They are said to reveal 'a source outside the speech' and form part of classical Psychoanalytic Theory. Slips of the tongue (speech) or pen (written text) are typical parapraxes, but Psychoanalytic Theory also refers to mishearings, misreadings, temporary forgetfulness ('motivated forgetting') and the misplacing of objects.

Erdelyi (1981) recounts a humorous and relevant example of a written Freudian slip. The author had previously written a paper on Freudian concepts which was entitled 'Let us not sweep repression under the rug' - a play on words. When citing Erdelyi's article and criticising Freudian theory of repressed memory, Loftus & Loftus (1980) has mis-typed 'let us now sweep repression under the rug' - revealing their motivation. 

Slips of the tongue are inevitable. For every 1,000 words spoken we make one or two errors. The average pace of speech is 150 words per minute and so a slip is likely to happen once every seven minutes of continuous speech, meaning we tend to make between 7 - 22 verbal slips in an average day.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) Freud analysed a number of bizarre, trivial and nonsensical errors and slips - notably, his own 'Signorelli parapraxis' - where unable to remember the name of the artist, he substituted Botticelli and Boltraffio. Psychoanalysis led him to identify the reason for his substitution - his visit to Trafoi (Northern Italy) where he learnt of the suicide of a patient dealing with sexual problems, linking sex and death as a theme in relation to the word 'Trafoi' prior to the word-finding problem which happened during a conversation Freud had on a train journey through Bosnia-Herzegovina. 'Herr' (from Bosnia-Herzegovina, was mentioned during the conversation)  is the counterpart to 'signor' - an extraction of an Italian word from the forgotten name, Signorelli. 

Freud suggested that most errors were the result of several causes - what he refers to as 'overdetermination of an error'. This resembles the modern understanding of how memory retrieval takes place, through a process of intersecting associations.

The term 'Freudian slip' has made its way into popular culture and common usage, but it is not a name Freud himself would have given the phenomenon. Freud referred to them as Fehlleistungen which means 'faulty actions' or 'faulty functions' or 'misperformances'. They are also known as 'slips of the tongue'.

Freud said of these so-called Fehlleistungen:

'In the same way that psychoanalysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of numerous little slips and mistakes which people make - symptomatic actions, such as they are called...I have pointed out that these phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations, that they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses or intentions.'
[Freud, An Autobiographical Study (1925)]

Freud also said 'a suppression of a previous intention to say something is the indispensable condition for the occurrence of a slip of the tongue'.

The term Freudian slip had now become debased so that it refers to any accidental slip of the tongue rather than remain true to its strict psychoanalytic definition which centres around dynamic repression rather than a mere wish to leave something unexpressed.

Under Psychoanalytic theory, Freudian slips are the result of unconscious wishes or desires, which are taboo, prohibited or dangerous and therefore articulation or expression of these anxiety-provoking wishes are suppressed. Anything that is suppressed 'always strives to assert itself elsewhere' and therefore lead to 'Freudian slips'. These Freudian slips, like dreams, are the 'royal road to the unconscious' and reveal the desires and impulses which drive us. 

The psychoanalytic technique for interpreting Freudian slips was free association. Freud stated that the 'accidental utterances and fancies of the patient...though striving for concealment, nevertheless intentionally betrays [that which has been suppressed].' By analysing the chains of association which emerge we are able to uncover what is being suppressed from the conscious mind. The careful deconstruction of condensed, disguised references within Freudian slips uncover a nexus of forgotten material and conflict which can be untangled and resolved. Within popular culture, we see a saturation of this vision of human experience where awkwardness and 'faulty actions' or 'misperformances' are characteristic of the sexually-repressed, but suddenly disappear once sexuality is expressed or some form of inner conflict has been resolved through sexual release. 

Howard Shevrin, Professor or Psychology at the University of Michigan performed a recent study which appeared to prove that words relevant to an subconscious conflict are actively inhibited or repressed in anxious patients. In certain psychoanalytic circles, focus on the slippery, fluid nature of language has been overshadowed by emphasis on the relational, signalling a shift from psychoanalysis to psychodynamism. The spotlight is now on what type of relationship is repeated by the patient within the therapeutic setting. 

Freud gave an example of this shift towards the psychodynamic in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He recalled a young male patient who was criticising the uselessness of his generation and the number of Jewish persons in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The patient attempted to recite a Latin proverb from Virgil ('Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor' - 'Let someone arise as an avenger from my bones') to clinch his argument, but failed to remember one word - aliquis (meaning 'someone' or 'something'). The patient accused Freud of gloating and requested that he analyse the Freudian slip. Freud instructed him to free associate on the missing word, which led to the following sequence of words: a liquid, liquefying, fluidity, fluid, relics, saint's relics, St Simon, St Benedict, St Augustine, St Januarius. The patient identified St Januarius as a calendar saint who performed the 'miracle of the blood' once a year when a phial of his blood was said to magically liquefy. He then half-started a sentence, before cutting himself off. Freud commented on the pause and the patient revealed an anxiety that a certain young woman in Vienna (with whom he had been having sex) had missed a period - she might be pregnant, bringing shame on his family. The Freudian slip had enabled the patient to consciously express a fear he had been trying to repress. The reference to the calendar saints and the notion that blood flow on a certain date. The quotation (of Dido) was also telling, because it is an allusion to descendants who 'rise' from the bones of their predecessor.

Freud recalled a female patient who spoke warmly of a man for whom she had previously expressed indifferent or contempt. The patient said: 'I never really had anything against him. I never gave him the chance to cuptivate my acquaintance.' Freud interrogated the patient and discovered that she had become romantically involved with the man. He concluded that she had intended to say 'cultivate' but unconsciously thought of the word 'captivate', revealing her hidden thoughts about ensnaring the man.

Freud had another example, this time of a physical slip - his friend, Dr Stekel told him of an incident when he was leaving the home of a female patient following a house-call. As he went to shake her hand, he found he was inadvertently untying the bow of her dressing gown instead. Freud suggested that Stekel had subconscious and unprofessional desire for the woman, which manifested itself in his unwitting hand movements.

In contrast to Psychoanalytic Theory, cognitive psychologists argue that Freudian slips are likely to be caused by a sequencing conflict in grammar production, as a result of cognitive underspecification caused by inattention, incomplete sense data or insufficient knowledge. Additionally, they may be due to the existence of some locally appropriate response pattern which is strongly primed by its prior usage, recent activation or emotional change. Critics of Freud suggest that certain sentences are simply susceptible to banalisation - the replacement of outmoded, archaic  or unusual expressions with those in common modern usage. This is known as 'strong habit substitution' or 'conventionalisation'. Thus, Freudian theory is often perceived as outmoded and irrelevant. Cognitive psychologists and linguists argue that language is so complex that mistakes are bound to occur regularly. We generate an intention to relate a particular idea with a word and formulate a pre-verbal message, involving a serious competition between a number of words from which we must select the most appropriate one. We then need to encode or grammatise the words, ordering them in the appropriate form and naturally, our brains use shortcuts, picking words we have used before. This happens through a rapid, preconscious process. Given the complexity of this process, mistakes are likely to happen - cognitive psychologists claim that this is little more than a misfiring of the shortcuts the brain-processing relies upon.

Freud's contemporary, philologist Rudolph Meringer explained Freudian slips as 'banana peels' in the path of a sentence - accidental shifts of linguistic units. Cognitive scientist, Gary Dell, a Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at the University of Illinois contends that Freudian slips are more actually revealing - of an individual's capacity for use of language and its components. Under his model words and sounds are interconnected in three brain networks: the semantic, the lexical and the phonological, with speech arising from their interaction. Occasionally, as a result of 'spreading activation' the networks trip over one another, causing a slip of the tongue. Dell sees this as a positive phenomena, because an error-prone system of linguistics enables the novel production of new words, highlighting the flexibility and dexterity of the human mind and mental processes involved in language.

When an individual wants to express a particular word, the mind activates the semantic network, which represents the meaning and context of thousands of words in the person's vocabulary. In reaching the correct word, the neural nodes that deal with concept are set into motion until the one with the strongest activation (the intended word) is selected and placed in the frame of the sentence. The phonological network then needs to activate all the sounds of the chosen word, avoiding interference from competing neural nodes for sounds which do not appear in the relevant intended word. For the intended word to be grammatically correct within a sentence, the lexical network must also kick in, activating words which represent the parts of speech in the word string - nouns, verbs, adjectives, suffixes, prefixes and tenses etc. Sometimes nodes for a sound which occurs later in the sentence are prematurely activated  and the later sound is substituted for an earlier one. This is known as an anticipation or 'forward-error' - for example 'best and brightest' becomes 'breast'. Spreading activation also explains a different variant of the verbal slip - the perseveration or 'backwards-error' where the node for a sound appearing at an earlier stage in the sentence becomes activated for too long - for example: 'I love you' becomes 'I love loo'. When one node for activation is activated prematurely and another is delayed, we make 'spoonerisms' (named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner) - 'time heals all wounds' becomes 'time wounds all heels' and suchlike.

Activations within and between networks can overlap, with nodes representing thoughts, sounds and syntax crossing and creating confusion about the strongest activation. When a competing node is similar to the correct one, it may gain primary and replace it, leading to malapropisms with similar associations. The more often you say a word, the stronger the activation. Further, when similar sounding nodes compete, their sounds can blend. This suggests that Freudian slips are nothing more than incorrect activation of nodes in the speech network and possess no special meaning. However, some Freudian slips appear to be overwhelmingly revealing as to the speaker's unconscious thoughts. Freud's analysis of his patients' verbal slips was always necessarily ex post facto - after the event - and based on a small sample. Dell suggests that seemingly meaningful slips may be due to the individual's confusion with a word recently said, heard, thought or read, which intrude into speech, due to competition with nodes for the correct, intended word. 

The mind can be primed by timely exposure, which is why sometimes we voice an incorrect word because our senses are stimulated by exposure to something else - sometimes for example, if I am writing whilst listening to the television or music in the background I might substitute a word I have heard for the correct one. This isn't necessarily Freudian because such slips do not necessarily reveal anything about subconscious desires, but they do show how certain stimuli capture our unconscious attention. Daniel Wegner, a Harvard Psychologist, states that the unconscious does play a role in such slips, but not in the way anticipated by Freud. Wegner conducted a study where he asked subjects not to think of a white bear and then asked them to speak about what was on their minds. In the stream of speech which followed, the forbidden white bear intruded into speech about once per minute. Wegner states that the more you forbid a thought, the more likely you will be to verbalise it, because it intrudes into your thoughts often. This is because part of our unconscious mind is always thinking about the worst case scenario. Freud interpreted these dark thoughts as the functioning of the Id - and part of true human nature, which is suppressed by social convention and the Ego's regulatory role. Wegner disagrees, arguing that we are more civilised than Freud gave us credit for. He suggests that the unconscious mind thinks about worst case scenarios in order to guard against them - we imagine it to make sure it does not happen. The problem it, the more the conscious mind (the prefrontal cortex) tries to suppress a thought, the more the unconscious mind has to check we are not thinking about it, causing us to think about it more. More often than not, the conscious mind will win and we are able to maintain control, but sometimes the unconscious mind allows the intrusive thought to sabotage speech.

Michael Motley, Psychologist at the University of Californa, Davis, focuses his research on inducing Freudian slips in a laboratory setting, arguing that intensity and distraction are two important conditions for such slips. Studying slips is incredibly difficult, given that they occur spontaneously, but Motley designed an experiment whereby subjects were greeted by either himself or a provocatively dressed woman, posing as a lab assistant. All the subjects were young, heterosexual males. The woman sat on a stool so that her knees (exposed in a very short skirt) were eye-level with subjects. All subjects were asked to read silently at the rate of one per second word-pairs (back mud, bad mouth, bat much, mad bug) which were designed to induce spoonerisms. A buzzer was periodically sounded, prompting the subjects to read a word-pair aloud. The subjects who were in the room with the sexy woman made significantly more sexual slips ('get laid' rather than 'let gaid' and 'bare shoulders' instead of 'share boulders') than the group who were in the room with the middle-aged Motley. The study was subsequently repeated, using a scale to measure sexual anxiety. The greater the measured sexual anxiety in a subject, the more likely he was to make a sexual slip. This surprised Motley who had predicted that the more sexually anxious subjects would take extra caution and make fewer slips. The presence of the sexy woman did not cause the subjects to make more slips generally - just increase the number of sexual slips. When the sexy woman was replaced by a different kind of arousing stimulus - the threat of electric shock, Motley found that slips related to electricity ('shad bock' became 'bad shock'), but there was no increase in neutral or sexual slips. This shows that the slips were highly specific to the source of the distraction. Motley claims that this is a 'Freudian slip' in the loosest sense - there is an influence from outside the intended speech which causes us to make verbal errors, but they fall short of the deeply repressed motives that Freud himself described. The slips were not voluntary or conscious, but this does not mean that they were deliberately concealed or repressed. The male subjects in Motley's study were very aware of their sexual arousal in the experiment with the sexy woman - apparently some of the men later approached her and asked her out on a date.

Wegner believes that subjects attempted to repress thoughts about sex and electric shocks, but these efforts backfired in the same way he was able to show in his white bear experiment. The more an individual tries not to think about an intrusive thought, the more insuppressible and opportunistic that thought becomes. Adding the stress of the test and words that are capable of being misconstrued as erotic leads to sexual thoughts finding their expression. Therefore, two conditions increase the risk of making a Freudian slip - the thought you wish to suppress and a stressor, distraction, time pressure or competing mental agenda. For instance, mental burden may occupy the conscious mind, leaving the unconscious unchecked and free to release the forbidden thought. This is why slips happen less frequently in stress-free conditions.

Researchers at Ghent University argue that we formulate Freudian slips all the time, but we have a super sensitive internal monitor which usually detects and corrects them before they are articulated verbally - especially the socially unacceptable ones. Studies were conducted where electrodes were placed on the scalps of subjects who were exposed to a test predisposing them towards making X-rated blunders. It was shown that strong bursts of electrical activity occurred when the subject made an X-rated slip, but also when the subject avoided making a slip. The brain seemed to exert energy into sidestepping the illicit slip.

James Pennebaker, Head of Psychology at the University of Texas, claims that slips of the tongue - Freudian slips - are not the only linguistic mistake we make. The subtle filler material in speech can also reveal that which we wish to remain hidden - particularly use of the pronoun 'I'. Jack Schafer, a former FBI Special Agent argues that deception often shows up in the style and form of an individual's speech, by way of 'text-bridges' - words and phrases which occur between truthful speech content which enable the speaker to omit information he does not wish to reveal. Certain words act as markers to locate the withheld information. 

Michael Erard claims that slips occur because our internal monitors are inhibited - from alcohol, exhaustion and ageing. Speaking very rapidly also stimulates slippage. Dell suggests that this makes it more likely that nodes from previous words are still activated and the more interference between nodes, the more likely the individual is to make a verbal slip. Speaking slower may reduce the likelihood of Freudian slips, but risks 'anticipation-error' because the brain has time to cast upstream in a sentence. Multitasking promotes Freudian slips, because it adds to an individual's mental load.

However, Freud had anticipated criticism of his theory by cognitive psychologists and stressed that 'favourable circumstances' such as exhaustion, circulatory disturbances and intoxication make Freudian slips more likely to happen. He called these psycho-physiological factors'. Freud gave an analogy; he stated that identifying these 'favourable circumstances' as the cause of a Freudian slip would be the same as going to a police station and blaming the theft of a purse on the isolated part of the city one found themselves in. For the theft of the purse (the metaphorical 'Freudian slip') there must also be a thief - the dynamically repressed desire which bursts through. Freud did concede that not all slips have some in-depth meaning, although it was highly probable that they did.

The modern approach would look towards the process of transference - the patient's relationship with Freud, the therapist and authority figure. The focus would be on the pattern of relating as opposed to delving into his unconscious associations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy faces similar limitations to this psychodynamic approach: both risk reducing the patient's internal world to a simplistic template. CBT is often employed to produce similar outcomes for a variety of patients within a short time-frame (unlike psychoanalysis which is a prolonged form of therapy). If the patient's surface symptoms appear to be 'stuck' the therapist attempts to locate the patient's 'core beliefs'; this is a broad-brush approach which ignores the intricate and singular tapestry of the individual mind, which Freudian slips, dream interpretation, and psychoanalysis generally, actually reveal. 

Modern communications technology - such as social networking - make Freudian slips increasingly unforgettable within our contemporary culture - those of celebrities and politicians are now readily accessible via cyberspace.

Language is not merely descriptive, but ultimately constituent of our sense of self - Freudian slips are windows into the flawed, contradictory, intricate idiosyncrasies of our character and history. Freud was a master at describing the phenomenology of the human pysche. He was the first theoretician to acknowledge the phenomenon of  'recurrent blockers' in tip-of-the-tongue states - the process whereby an individual strives to recover the lost word or name and incorrect substitute ones repeatedly enter the conscious, despite the individual knowing them to be wrong. Freud located his explanation for Freudian slips in the unconscious - in fact many processes of the human brain, whether schematic or automatic, take place unconsciously. However, Freud was correct in refusing to divorce cognition from emotion.

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