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When Your Mouth Betrays You: The Science and Psychology Behind Slips

Posted: 03/19/2012 4:25 pm

Psychologists refer to it as parapraxis and the lay person says 'Freudian slip' -- but whatever it's called, a slip of the tongue is always embarrassing. Why are people so frequently betrayed by their mouths? Scientists and psychologists have different theories about this special breed of mortification.

People say between two and six words per second, which affords plenty of room for mistakes. For Dr. Geoff Goodman, a psychoanalyst in New York and professor at Long Island University, using the wrong word or name "reveals a secret desire forbidden by society or one's self." He explains that before the mind goes into censor mode, the unconscious, hidden thoughts can spill out.

Though calling someone the wrong name feels like an error, Dr. Goodman says all psychoanalysts agree "that there are no accidents." Though the word wasn't supposed to get air time, it was no random coincidence.

In a situation where someone calls a lover an ex's name, Dr. Goodman feels that the "slipper" wishes he or she were still with an ex. In that moment, "we're trying to recreate the previous circumstances in the current circumstances." Another motive is anger. "If I'm angry at my partner, one way of expressing that anger may be to unintentionally call her the wrong name."

"In the most basic sense, the Freudian view of the mind is that the mind is in conflict with itself -- so there are different parts warring against each other." When a person botches a word, the unconscious wishes have won over the part of the mind that tries to repress them.

Arlene Kramer-Richards, a psychoanalyst in Manhattan, understands that Freud's ideas may make people uncomfortable. "I think it's very hard for anyone to buy into the Freudian concept because it makes us feel stupid and helpless to know we are not in control of what we say and think and dream." Her husband, Dr. Arnold Richards, a psychoanalyst and former editor of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (JAPA) adds that Freud's theory is a painful blow to absorb "because we realized we weren't unique." Nobody is immune to slips.

But Freud's theory is hardly the be all, end all. Dr. Michele Miozzo, language scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of Biological Foundations of Language Production: A Special Issue of Language and Cognitive Processes, doesn't see errors as deeply personal puzzles to be solved. Rather, he says it comes down to sound and meaning.

An example he cites is saying 'doll' when one means to say 'dog.' Dr. Miozzo explains that "When I want to say 'dog,' I activate a bunch of words that are similar in sound. If something goes wrong, it's more likely that I produce something sounding similar. I know more or less what I want to say, but I can't control how I piece those sounds together."

Dr. Miozzo does feel there's another possible -- but impossible to measure -- component. If someone is in a relationship and harbors passion for someone else, that thought must be kept quiet. It's no surprise that when one is actively trying not to say something, "it's precisely what you think of."

That concession is too emotional for Dr. Zenzi Griffin, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. When the brain tries to come up with a word or a name, she explains that it selects "the name that's the best match." Someone might mix up two names because both people are the same sex, or they look alike. They may also be in the same category, which explains why a mother could call her younger daughter by her eldest daughter's name.

Dr. Griffin also feels that there's nothing "deeper" about repetition of an error. "Once you've made an error, you're likely to make it again," she explains. Plus, that mistake goes right to the front of the brain's word bank, making it easier to grab -- and misuse -- again.

As a serial "slipper," I wish someone would hurry up and develop a vaccination. Until then, I may just have to keep my mouth shut.

Do you have a slip that's still haunting you? Share it in the comments.