Freudian slips revisited

James Reason on unconscious urges and cognitive cock-ups.
We should begin by reminding ourselves of what Freud actually said about slips and lapses. He was rarely one to mince his words. ‘A suppression of a previous intention to say something is the indispensable condition for the occurrence of a slip of the tongue’ (Freud, 1922, p.52). A slip is the product both of a local opportunity from the particular circumstances and of a struggle between two mental forces: some underlying need or wish and the desire to keep it hidden. Freud applied similar arguments to slips of action and memory lapses. Indeed, it was his inability to recall the last name of a minor poet that set him on the track in the first place. And therein lies his genius: his ability to see the value of what he termed ‘the refuse of the phenomenal world’. Freud was well aware of alternative explanations. He called them ‘psycho-physiological factors’, a label that embraced fatigue, excitement, strong associations, distraction, preoccupation and the like. He was even willing to concede in a half-hearted way that a few errors could occur for these reasons alone: ‘…we do not maintain that every single mistake has a meaning, although I think that is very probable’ (Freud, 1922, p.22). To Freud, notions such as absent-mindedness, excitement or distraction offered little or nothing in the way of real explanation: They are mere phrases… They facilitate the slip by pointing out a path for it to take. But if there is a path before me does it necessarily follow that I must go along it? I also require a motive determining my choice, some force to propel me forward. (Freud, 1922, p.36) It is in regard to the nature of this motive force — unconscious urges or mere habits — that many contemporary psychologists would part company with Freud. We can best illustrate these differences of opinion by getting down to cases.

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