Slips of the Tongue

Some time ago, Ted Kennedy was giving a speech about education that was televised on C-SPAN. The late senator often moved his hands when he spoke, and his gestures were especially expansive that day. His voice conveyed a sense of urgency that made pulses race. "Our national interest," he intoned, "ought to be to encourage...," his strong hands cupped the air, "the breast."

The audience tittered, but they didn't have an opportunity to savor the gaffe. Without hesitation, the master orator backed up and started again. This time it came out right: "The best and brightest."

Slips of the tongue are almost inevitable. For every 1,000 words spoken, we make one or two errors. Considering that the average pace of speech is 150 words a minute, a slip is bound to occur about once every seven minutes of continuous talk. Each day, most of us make somewhere between 7 and 22 verbal slips.

Sigmund Freud, whose name is indelibly linked with such gaffes, called them Fehlleistungen (faulty actions) in his 1901 book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He deemed them notable for revealing an unconscious thought, belief, wish, or motive. "Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," he wrote. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

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Image: Young woman placing finger over her mouth
The Freudian slip is invoked to explain some strange and embarrassing behavior. "Nice to beat you," smiles a woman when she meets the ex-girlfriend of her husband. A dinner guest thanks his host "for the hostility." Soon after the adulterous Tiger Woods complained of a neck injury, a female reporter blurted that the golfer withdrew from the 2010 Players tournament due to "a bulging di**" in his back. When the founder of al-Qaeda was finally ambushed and killed last year, a critic of the president said, "Obama is dead and I don't care."

"For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan," President George H.W. Bush once declared. "We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex... uh...setbacks."

Freud would likely have insisted that a repressed thought or motive in Bush's unconscious reared its ungovernable head. The Viennese psychiatrist might have subjected the president to the couch and asked him about his childhood, his feelings about Reagan, his relationship with his wife—and in the telling, an explanation would emerge. Perhaps hearing himself say triumphs and mistakes triggered an unconscious association with sex.

Freud laid bare his analysis of slips in Psychopathology. In one example, he notes a blunder made by a Miss X in regard to a man, Mr. Y. He found it strange that Miss X spoke warmly of Mr. Y, when she had previously expressed indifference or contempt. "I really never had anything against him," she said. "I never gave him the chance to cuptivate my acquaintance." Interrogating the woman, Freud learned that she had become romantically involved with Mr. Y. From this, he concluded that she meant to say cultivate while her unconscious thought captivate. By saying cuptivate, she revealed her hidden thought about becoming engaged to the man.

More than a century after it was first identified and long after Freud's ideas, especially about the ubiquity of sexual urges, have been dethroned, the Freudian slip holds an astonishing power to terrorize ordinary men and women. It threatens to reveal passions and motives and problems that lurk so far below the surface that we don't even know they exist. If Freud is right, then each one of us, at any given moment, harbors an F-bomb just waiting to explode.

But even a contemporary of Freud, philologist Rudolf Meringer, had a far less titillating explanation for slips of the tongue. They're just banana peels in the path of a sentence, accidental shifts of linguistic units. To Meringer, who published two collections of verbal mishaps, an error is just an error and a banana is just a banana. While we all fear that even our most innocent words will betray us, it's more Meringer's view of our blunders that science confirms today.

Recent research has focused on speech production, most notably how the brain translates thoughts into words. Cognitive scientist Gary Dell, a professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana, contends that slips of the tongue are indeed revealing—of a person's capacity for using language and its components.

Image: 4 tongues: 1w/ toy baby, 2w/ blackheart, 3 w/ razorblade, 4 w/ lemon
Henry Leutwyler
In his view, concepts, words, and sounds are interconnected in three networks in the brain—the semantic, lexical, and phonological—and speech arises from their interaction. But every so often, the networks, which operate through a process he calls "spreading activation," trip over each other. The result is a slip of the tongue. And that, he believes, is a good thing. A language-production system that is error-prone allows for the "novel production" of words. It is prima facie evidence of linguistic flexibility, proof of the great dexterity of the human mind.

Imagine that you, like Freud's Miss X, would like to express the word cultivate. Your mind activates your semantic network, which represents the meanings of the 30,000 or so words in your vocabulary. In getting to cultivate, neural nodes that have something to do with the concept (nurturing, tending, developing, fostering) are set in motion until the one word with the strongest activation, cultivate, is selected, and placed in the frame of the sentence.

The phonological network then needs to activate all the sounds of the chosen word: the k sound, the u sound and so on, avoiding interference from competing nodes for sounds like the pesky p and others. For cultivate to be grammatically correct in a sentence, the lexical network also kicks in and activates nodes that represent the parts of speech in the word string—nouns, verbs, adjectives, suffixes, prefixes—as well as tenses.

Sometimes nodes for a sound that occurs later in a sentence are activated prematurely and the later sound is substituted for the correct one. The result is a slip known as an anticipation, or forward error. Exhibit A is Ted Kennedy's "breast and brightest" slip: the r sound from brightest rushed into the sentence and corrupted best. In Bush's sexbacks the x sound at the end of the word setbacks turned set into sex. Tiger Woods's "bulging disk" in his back became another part of his anatomy when the node for the k sound at the end of back was activated too soon.

Spreading activation helps explain another type of slip: perseveration, or backwards error. "I love you" becomes "I love loo" because the node for the l sound remains activated too long.

When one node for a phrase is activated prematurely and another is delayed, we make spoonerisms (named for the blunder-prone Reverend William Archibald Spooner, an Oxford don who collected humorous slips). Enter "homely cousewife" and "time wounds all heels."

Activations within and between networks can overlap, and nodes that represent thoughts, syntax, and sounds can cross, creating confusion about the strongest activation. When a competing node is similar to the correct one, it sometimes gains primacy and replaces it. Hence malapropisms with similar associations: We ask for a yellow crayon when we really want orange, say final but mean midterm, and call a friend her older sister's name. The more often you say a word, the stronger the activation.

Node competition can also encourage us to slip on words that are similar sounding, absurdly turning Osama into Obama, hospitality into hostility, insinuate into incinerate, and creating faux pas like social leopards. When nodes representing different words compete, their sounds can blend: Gratification and satisfaction become gratifaction; captivate and cultivate become Miss X's cuptivate.

The overwhelming majority of verbal slips are nothing more than incorrect activations of nodes in the speech network. No one process is at fault. As in any other system, errors occur and not every mistake has a meaning. Most bananas are just bananas.

Yet some slips sound suspiciously revealing, fueling a temptation to dig deeper. Is it possible that a repressed and unconscious wish to captivate or to be captivated activated the wrong nodes in Miss X's speech network?

Freud relied on "after-the-fact interpretation of a small set of slips in the wild, and with wild abandon," says a doubting Dell. "What's the scientific evidence that [Miss X]'s thoughts about captivate are unconscious and repressed?" he asks.

A likelier explanation is confusion with a word that one recently thought, heard, read, or said. "Words that come to your mind are likely to intrude into speech," says Dell. The nodes for such intrusive words or sounds compete with the nodes for the correct ones, and sometimes the wrong ones win. If Miss X thought or heard captivate as she was about to say cultivate, a blend of the two could fall from her lips.

The mind can be primed by timely exposure. While dining with a colleague who is wearing a cobalt blue watch, you might summon the waiter for a spoon but request a watch because it catches your eye at that moment. Such slips aren't Freudian in the sense that they represent deep, dark desires, although they do expose something that has captured our attention unaware.

Image: Young woman with slimy green tongue

Henry Leutwyler
One can imagine Teddy Kennedy thinking the word breast or seeing a lady's cleavage during his "breast and brightest" talk. It's equally possible that in the wake of Tiger Woods's widely reported sexual escapades, the reporter's thoughts migrated to the golfer's nether regions while she was discussing the "bulging disk in his back." Such anticipation errors happen all the time without the influence of an intrusive thought.

Sure, the unconscious plays a role in slips of the tongue, says Daniel Wegner. Just not in the way Freud thought.

Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, famously asked volunteers not to think of a white bear. Then he told them to speak about anything that was on their minds. In the stream of speech that followed, the forbidden white bear reared its unwanted head about once a minute.

Stay mum about your sister's secret pregnancy. By all means, resist the urge to tell your new beau that you love him. The more you forbid a thought, the likelier you'll think it, which often leads to verbalizing it. Tell yourself not to think about something before you go to sleep and it will pop up in your dreams.

"Part of our unconscious mind is always thinking about the worst thing," explains Wegner. "That's the imp in the corner looking in." While Freud thought of these dark and illicit thoughts as the id and our true nature, Wegner disagrees. "We're more civilized than that." The unconscious thinks about worst-case scenarios to guard against them; after all, you can't prevent something from happening unless part of your brain can imagine it and check to make sure it's not actually happening.

The problem is, the more the conscious mind (prefrontal cortex) wants to suppress a thought, the more the unconscious has to check to make sure we're not thinking it; so we think about it more. "We're just trying to do the right thing and not make embarrassing slips," says Wegner, and the conscious mind usually prevails. But sometimes it fails, the imp sabotages us, and the very thought we tried to suppress pops into our minds and rolls off our tongue.

The imp thrives on intensity and distraction, says University of California, Davis psychologist Michael Motley, who spent a good part of his career inducing slips in a laboratory setting. Slips are notoriously difficult to study because they're spontaneous, but Motley devised a way.

In the lab, Motley greeted some of the participants, and a provocatively dressed woman posing as a lab assistant met the others (all young heterosexual men). "She was wearing a translucent, nearly transparent, off-the-shoulders top with a super-short yellow skirt," Motley recalls. "And we had her sitting on a stool where her knees were at eye-level with the guys." All were asked to read silently, at the rate of one per second, word pairs (back mud, bad mouth, bat much, mad bug) designed to induce spoonerisms. A buzzer prompted them periodically to say a target pair out loud.

The men who sat in the room with the beauty made significantly more sexual slips (saying get laid instead of let gaid and bare shoulders instead of share boulders) than the group that met with the middle-age male professor. Later, the researchers repeated the experiment, this time adding a scale to measure sexual anxiety. The more sexual anxiety a subject registered, the more slips of a sexual nature. The finding was surprising: The team had expected the sexually anxious to exert extra caution and make fewer sexual slips, not more.

The presence of the sexy woman didn't cause men to make more slips overall, only slips about sex. When the sexy woman was replaced by an arousing stimulus of an altogether different kind—the threat of electric shock—subjects made more slips referring to electricity (bad shock rather than the target pair shad bock), but not more neutral or erotic slips. In other words, the slips were highly specific to the source of distraction.

"This is the loosest sense of the Freudian slip in that there's an influence outside the intended speech that causes us to make verbal errors," Motley explains. But were they the deeply repressed motives that Freud described? The slips weren't voluntary or conscious, but that doesn't mean they had been deliberately concealed or repressed. Motley suggests the men were very aware of their arousal in the sexual experiment: Some later approached the woman and asked her out on a date.

Wegner believes the subjects attempted to suppress thoughts about sex and shocks, but their efforts backfired just as they would have had they been told not to think of a white bear. As a volunteer test-taker in a university lab, it might be unwise to reveal being turned on. But the more one tries not to think about it, the more insuppressible and opportunistic the thought. Add the stress of the test and words that can be misconstrued as erotic, and the sexual thought finds its expression.

Image: Young woman with banana in her mouth

Henry Leutwyler
Two conditions increase the risk of making a so-called Freudian slip, Wegner says. One is the thought that you'd rather suppress. The other is a stressor, a distraction, time pressure, or a competing mental agenda. If you want to avoid saying anything to your friend about her astonishing weight gain, don't talk to her while you're eating an ice cream cone and muscling your car down a crowded street. Otherwise, you may blurt out: "I'll help you get back on your fat—I mean, feet!" The mental burden occupies the conscious mind, leaving the unconscious unchecked, free to release the inappropriate thought. Sure, slips happen under stress-free conditions, but less frequently.

We formulate slips in our mind all the time, say Ghent University researchers, but we also have a super-sensitive internal monitor that usually detects and corrects them, especially the socially questionable ones, before they're ever voiced. The Belgians placed electrodes on the scalps of volunteers and subjected them to a test predisposing them to X-rated blunders. Subjects had a strong burst of electrical activity when making a taboo slip—but they also showed a strong reaction when they didn't make the illicit slip. Their brains presumably swung into action to sidestep the trap.

Slips of the tongue, however, are not the only linguistic lapses we make. The subtle filler stuff of speech can also inadvertently reveal what we'd rather it not, says James Pennebaker, head of psychology at the University of Texas.

By itself the personal pronoun I—an article usually overlooked as filler—isn't telling. But how frequently we use it (or not) is. In normal conversation, the average person uses an I-word (I, me, my) once every 16 words, just over 6 percent of all words used. The frequent I-er is more likely female than male and very focused on her feelings. I is also strongly linked with status, uttered much more by the lower classes than the upper. It may be, explains Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, that people pay more attention to themselves when they are subordinate to others.

What makes I interesting, Pennebaker says, is that it populates speech when people are being personal, honest, and self-reflective, even insecure. Its absence is telling. I word frequency is ideal for detecting whether someone is trying to conceal something deliberately. Liars avoid I.

Deception shows up in other often-overlooked stylistic stuff of speech—if you know what to look for. Jack Schafer does. The former FBI special agent homes in on words such as then, so, after, when, as, while, and next—so-called text bridges—because they span information gaps. And that, finds Schafer, is precisely where much can be found.

"Most liars tell the truth up to the point where they want to conceal something, skip over the withheld information, and then tell the truth again," he says. Text bridges help by allowing speakers to omit information they'd like to conceal. To the trained ear, the same words serve as markers to locate withheld information.

Schafer uses the example of a kindergartner who tells his parents, "I was just sitting there, and then Mark came up to me and hit me." As an FBI agent, Schafer espies an information gap between sitting and hit. The then spans it to make a neat little story. Further, the text word qualifier just indicates that the child wanted to minimize his actions, another indicator of deception. What really happened? The boy had stolen a toy from Mark, and Mark struck him in retaliation.

According to Schafer, the easiest way to deceive is to lie by leaving out information, and text bridges pave over the omission. If a person has a motive to cover something up, look out for the frequent use of then, after, and so—they are attempts to tie up a story with a neat bow.

Classic slips, however, represent our tongues as they are untying. What is most apt to loosen them? Anything that might inhibit our internal monitors increases the odds of making a slip. Alcohol, aging, and fatigue lead the list.

As a sleep-deprived new parent, Michael Erard, author of Um...Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean, suddenly found himself full of malapropisms, saying lunch when he meant breakfast. Speaking quickly also stimulates slippage. The faster you talk, says Dell, the more likely it is that nodes from previous words are still activated; the more interference among nodes, the more speech errors.

Speak slowly and you'll make fewer slips overall—but you'll be especially prone to anticipation errors because your brain has time to cast upstream in a sentence. Multitasking promotes slips because it adds to your mental load. Erard advises the slip-shy to try to banish extraneous thoughts or background noise when speaking; they introduce irrelevant words that may wind up in your speech.

And should you make the inevitable slip, you can reduce the likelihood that it will be noticed by not stopping and by being very interesting, Erard advises. Listeners pay more attention to delivery when the content is dull.

Motley takes a completely different tack: "Why try to avoid slips?" Worrying doesn't help. Most fall through the cracks anyway: We catch only a fraction of our own verbal errors, and people seldom remember hearing more than one a week. Even if you're caught, the overwhelming majority of slips reveal no personal information. White bears may be unforgettable, but they're a very rare breed.

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