Do the words that accidentally fly out reflect our secret desires or do they represent innocent speech mistakes?
In 1988, George W. Bush, then Vice President of the United States, arrived in Idaho on a working visit. According to the program of the visit, he was to make a live television speech on the topic of agricultural policy, noting the successes that he had achieved together with US President Ronald Reagan.
Suddenly the politician declared: "We have had victories. There have been mistakes - the usual lack of sex in an economic ... that is, agricultural policy."
Even after the end of his political career, President George W. Bush was reminded of this famous slip of the tongue for a long time.
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Oh, those Freudian slips! We want to say one thing, but it turns out completely different - and good would be some harmless things, otherwise, after all, some kind of stupidity that can turn into a real catastrophe strives to break off the tongue.
Such slips are the worst nightmare for any speaker. But what makes us make such mistakes? And is there a hidden meaning in them?
It was not enough for Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, to simply find out what the patient was thinking. He was sure that true desires can be found only by paying attention to slips of the tongue and other manifestations of the unconscious.
As one of the comic definitions of the Freudian slip of the tongue says, "I meant my mother, but remembered my mother."
Random speech errors, which are combined with the term "parapraxis", can reveal forbidden impulses deeply hidden in our unconscious - for example, sexual desires or obscene expressions.
Speech errors are not at all random - they are riddles that can be solved.
There is only one problem: this idea, like many of Freud's other guesses, is not very testable. Sigmund Freud may be no less famous than Charles Darwin, but many modern psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists question almost all of his
But is it safe to say that his conclusions about verbal errors are also wrong?
The authors of one of the early studies decided to test this hypothesis in a very original way: with the help of a sexy girl and a stun gun.
The study participants (heterosexual men) were divided into three groups. At the very beginning of the experiment, the first two groups were met by a middle-aged professor, and the third was led to the office by a laboratory assistant in a revealing outfit.
“We came to the very border of what is allowed at the university: the girl was very attractive, and she was wearing a very short skirt with a translucent blouse, ” recalls Michael Motley, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis (USA) and one of the authors of the study.
Participants were asked to read several pairs of words to themselves, one per second. They did not even suspect that these pairs of words are so-called "spunerisms", that is, expressions in which people often accidentally swap syllables (for example, "eardrum" instead of "eardrum").
This phenomenon is named after Oxford University professor William Archibald Spooner, known for his absent-mindedness and penchant for such permutations.
From time to time, participants were asked to read the phrase aloud by giving them the appropriate sound signal.
As Freud would have suggested, in the presence of a laboratory assistant, men made much more slips of the tongue with a sexual connotation (for example, "smooth sex" instead of "sweet cupcake" or "naked" instead of "wash their hair") than the control group - despite the fact that the general the number of reservations was roughly the same.
In the third group, electrodes were attached to the volunteers' fingers and connected to a device capable of generating weak electrical impulses.
"We told the participants that there was a 70% chance of getting an electric shock, " says Motley. "Of course it wasn't true."
And in this group, mistakes were also made, showing what was on the minds of the readers (for example, "Colin Volt" instead of "Volin Colt" and "Kolka current" instead of "Kok Tolka").
The scientists then measured the participants' level of sexual anxiety. It turned out that those who had it higher made the most reservations with a sexual connotation. But why?
Trying to suppress their desires, these men could fall into a trap called the "polar bear problem", first noticed by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky: if you try your best not to think about anything - like sex or a polar bear - in your head only this will climb.
It is on this phenomenon that the popular psychological game The Game is based, the main goal of which is not to think about the game itself. Thinking about it means defeat.
Following the rules, defeat must be declared out loud - and then everyone who hears it loses. So far, no one has been able to win the "Game".
Back in the 1980s, American psychologist Daniel Wegner suggested that the reason for Freud's slips of the tongue might be the fact that we are trying to avoid them.
According to his theory, thoughts are constantly being filtered in the subconscious so that our
the innermost desires did not burst out.
But, paradoxically, the insidious thought that once arose, instead of being suppressed, can get into consciousness and will scroll in the head over and over again.
The secret will certainly become apparent - it's only a matter of time. “When we think about something, we choose the right words and prepare them in case we need to speak up, ” says Motley.
With multiple choices, the word we ultimately choose can give us away.
Motley conducted another experiment, asking the participants to complete the sentence: "The old man made big flour from ..." and in parallel measuring their level of sexual arousal.
It would seem that many words fit here in meaning: rolls, pies, loaves of bread ... However, the participants who felt attracted to the laboratory assistant more often chose the word "rolls".
"This word is for two different situations, and therefore it is preferred. It seems to us that something similar happens with reservations according to Freud, " says Motley.
We can accidentally tell a friend that she is "plump", wanting to call her "thin", blurt out "pornography" instead of "photograph" at a business meeting, or during sex call a partner the name of a former lover. This is how our unconscious brings us down.
To top it all off, stress increases the likelihood of making an unfortunate mistake.
However, not all scientists share this opinion. During Freud's lifetime, his most severe critic was the Austrian linguist Rudolf Mehringer.
During his time at the University of Vienna at the end of the 19th century, Mehringer collected, recorded and carefully analyzed thousands of speech errors, most of which he heard from colleagues at lunch.
The scholars spoke in turn, and if anyone made a reservation, the conversation would cease until the slip was carefully documented.
After examining these records, Mehringer concluded that slips are a confusion of letters, not meanings.
Psycholinguist Rob Hartsuiker from the University of Ghent (Netherlands) is sure that most of these mistakes are completely innocent.
An example is the ill-fated slip of the tongue by journalist Jim Noty on BBC Radio 4's Today - he mispronounced the name of then-British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, replacing the first letter with "k", resulting in a rude curse.
At first glance, this mistake looks like a classic Freudian slip of the tongue. In fact, however, it rather testifies to how the brain regulates the function of speech, rather than about Notti's attitude to politics.
Judging by the results of numerous experiments, if two words have a similar contextual meaning and have the same vowel in their composition, there is a very high probability of confusing the first consonants in them.
“I’m sure many people find Jeremy Hunt not a very pleasant person, but in this case there was a substitution of the 'k' sound from the word culture, ” says Hartsuiker.
This is the result of how our brains retrieve words from the depths of memory.
First, he chooses a suitable word from a group of similar concepts. This is how the pair "culture" - "Hunt" could have arisen.
As soon as the word is determined, the brain selects the sounds to express it - and at this stage consonant substitution can occur.
"This is a very common phenomenon, but for some reason Freud did not pay enough attention to it, " says Hartsuiker.
As the co-host of that program aptly noted after the unfortunate mistake of his colleague, it was very reckless to appoint a man named Hunt to the post of Minister of Culture.
Despite numerous verbal traps, on average we can make no more than 22 words out of 15, 000 mistakes per day.
A tomographic study of the brain has shown that most of the possible embarrassment is detected at the stage when we pronounce words to ourselves. This allows us to filter them out and not say them out loud.
"In the end, we pronounce everything correctly, but brain impulses indicate that there was a forbidden mistake in our thoughts, " says Hartsuiker, who co-authored the study.
We’re probably more prone to slip up when we’re distracted or when our unconscious "spell checker" is not working properly — for example, when we are nervous, tired, or drunk.
The number of errors can also increase with age or as the speed of speech increases.
In other words, slips of the tongue can demonstrate what processes occur in the brain during the formation of speech, and even make it clear what we are thinking at the moment and what we would prefer to remain silent about.
However, whether they are able to reveal our innermost thoughts is a big question.
Some psychoanalysts, including Rosin Perelberg of University College London, UK, are convinced that reservations are important.
"They often become the subject of jokes, but in fact they are able to reveal something that a person would never consciously talk about, " she says. "Personally, I always take them very seriously."
As an example, she cites a patient whose reservation made it possible to reveal his subconscious fears that he might harm his unborn child (the man said "beat" instead of "drink").
Hartsuiker is skeptical about such claims. "The scientific evidence suggests that real Freudian slips are very, very rare, " he says.
Other scholars believe that the explanation depends on the specific disclaimer. "Do I agree that all reservations without exception are the result of the work of the unconscious? No. But do I agree that Freudian reservations exist? Yes, I agree, " says Motley.
So to what category does George W. Bush's mistake fall? It is unlikely that we will ever know about this. Most likely, it only testifies that she and Reagan were sexual ... sorry, business partners.