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Freudian slips are actually an artifact of how your brain processes language!

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Have you ever been in a fight with your, like, significant other and then accidentally called them your ex’s name?

Or gone to a restaurant and asked for a table for sex instead of, like, for six? Besides completely embarrassing yourself and creating a situation you're probably going to regret for a long, long time, you made what’s called a Freudian slip, which is named after famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

According to Freud, these moments reveal your hidden desires— so he would say you, like, had more on your mind than just dinner with your friends. But it turns out that there isn’t much truth behind that. The concept of Freudian slips came from Freud’s research on the subconscious mind.

He believed that you aren’t actually aware of your true desires and that, instead, they’re hidden in your subconscious. Those desires often had something to do with sex, since Freud thought bodily pleasure— whether through sex or even through going to the bathroom—is your #1 motivator in life. Some of his theories about this went a little too far— like, he famously believed that healthy toddlers should be sexually attracted to their opposite-sex parent, which isn’t actually normal, or healthy.

To describe how he thought the mind worked,. Freud developed his theoretical model of the subconscious, which breaks down your mind into three parts: the id, the superego, and the ego. The id contains those basic instincts, which just want pleasure all the time, while the superego has your morals and self-control.

Since these two parts are at odds with each other, your ego acts like the referee: its job is to manage those desires so you can be both responsible and satisfied. Still, even with the ego, Freud believed those basic desires could reveal themselves when you’re talking, and those moments came to be called Freudian slips— or peni— —or parapraxis if you’re feeling fancy. Freud’s reasoning sort of makes sense, but based on the evidence they’ve collected since then, psychologists today don’t think Freudian slips actually mean anything about your deeper desires.

Instead, they probably say more about how your brain processes language. One key early experiment on Freudian slips was published in the journal Human Communication Research back in 1979. In the experiment, three groups of male undergraduates were asked to read a list of words that would be easy to misspeak, like ‘back mud’, and ‘bat much’, and ‘mad bug’.

One group read the list while a provocatively-dressed lab assistant sat in the room, and they made a lot more errors that had to do with sex— like ‘fast passion’ instead of ‘past fashion’. Group two was hooked up to electrodes, and they were told that there was a 70% chance they would be shocked. The researchers didn’t actually plan to shock them, but the subjects didn’t know that.

That group made more electricity-based errors— like ‘cursed wattage’ instead of ‘worst cottage’. Group three was a control group and just read the list. Based on those results, it seems like Freudian slips should hold some weight, but the researchers took the experiment one step further.

They used a survey to measure how anxious the men in group one were about sex, since the more anxious men would probably be more aware they were thinking about sex, so they’d be more careful not to make mistakes. But instead, they found the opposite: The most anxious men made the most mistakes. So those so-called Freudian slips?

They didn’t seem to have much to do with the subconscious. Instead, they were probably examples of the ironic process theory, aka the white bear problem, which was first tested by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner in the late 1980s. Don’t think of a white bear.

Seriously, think of anything but a white bear. So yeah, white bears, we've all got white bears. That’s the white bear problem.

If someone asks you not to think about something—like a white bear— it’s probably gonna be all you can think about. So if you’re scared of getting electrocuted or embarrassing yourself in front of that cute lab assistant, it’s going to sneak into what you say, and other experiments have confirmed that. In reality, Freudian slips are probably caused by the words themselves, which was first suggested by one of Freud’s critics, a linguist named Rudolf Meringer.

By studying thousands of slips, researchers in psychology and linguistics have found that if two words share a vowel and would both make sense in the same sentence, there’s a good chance you’ll swap the beginnings of the words. That’s because your vocabulary is roughly organized by how similar words sound and what they mean, so it’s easy to say one thing instead of another. Most of the time, your brain catches those mistakes before you realize it, but sometimes they sneak through.

Unfortunately for Freud, most psychologists think he was also wrong about pretty much everything else, not just Freudian slips. Still, some of his theories did form the basis for modern psychological research, like one modern idea, called the society of mind model, says brain processes are a result of thousands of different subsystems all working together, and that was inspired by Freud’s id, superego, and ego. But even though they’re especially fun to talk about,.

Freudian slips didn’t make the cut. It might be hilarious to make fun of people for when they ask for a table for sex, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want a table for sex. Language is just—language, uh, talking—language and talking—it's just really hard.

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