In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we hear the famous line “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, implying that the Player Queen’s protestations of love and fidelity are too excessive to be believed.
The idea that a person’s behaviours and expressions inadvertently give away underlying thoughts or motives is not new. However, it took Freud with his newfound understanding of the unconscious to fully explore this concept; giving rise to what we have come to know as a “Freudian Slip”.
In this article, I have compiled chapter summaries for Freud’s book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) – including key quotes and my personal observations. I hope it prompts you to explore this psychology great further for yourself.
For my other Freud Book Summaries and Guides, see:
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
Top Tip before you read the book for yourself: This book could easily have an abridged version. Many chapters contain endless examples (as many as fifty); these could easily have been reduced to one or two. If you come to a chapter that seems to be driving the same point home too many times, save yourself the effort and flip through to the end of the chapter to see if there are any concluding remarks, then move on.
The Book in One Quote
The following statement may be made as the general conclusion to be drawn from the various discussions above: certain inadequacies in our psychic performance – the character they all share will be more closely defined below – and certain actions performed apparently unintentionally prove, when methods of psychoanalytical investigation are applied to them, to be well motivated and determined by factors of which the conscious mind is unaware. To be classified with phenomena capable of explanation in this way, a psychic slip must fulfil the following conditions.
a) It must not go beyond a certain point, a point that is established by our judgement and complies with our ideas of what is ‘within the range of normality’.
b) It must have the character of a brief and temporary disturbance. We must have carried out the same action correctly before, or believe ourselves capable of carrying it out more correctly at any time. If someone else corrects our slip, we must immediately acknowledge the justice of the correction and the malfunctioning of our own psychic process.
c) If we notice the slip at all, we must not recognize any motivation for it in ourselves; instead, we must be tempted to put it down to ‘carelessness’ or ‘chance’.
The category of psychic slip, therefore, comprises cases of forgetfulness, mistakes that we make although we know better, slips of the tongue, slips in reading, slips of the pen, inadvertent actions and so-called fortuitous actions.
Chapter Summaries and Observations
- I: Forgetting Proper Names
- II: Forgetting Foreign Words
- III: Forgetting Names and Sequences of Words
- IV: On Childhood Memories and Screen Memories
- V: Slips of the Tongue
- VI: Slips in Reading and Slips of the Pen
- VII: Forgetting Impressions and Intentions
- VIII: Inadvertent Actions:
- IX: Symptomatic and Fortuitous Actions
- X: Making Mistakes
- XI Combined Slips
- XII Determinism – Belief in Change and Superstition – Some Points of View
I: Forgetting Proper Names
Quote from the chapter: “While proper names are sometimes forgotten for simple reasons, they are also sometimes forgotten for reasons motivated by repression”
Contents: In this chapter, Freud recounts how he forgot an artist’s name in a conversation with someone on a train. When concentrating and trying to remember, various forms of possible correct names came to mind. Upon reflection, he realised that guesses he made contained syllables from a thought which he had repressed or didn’t want to share with the other person on the train because he deemed it inappropriate.
My observations: Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, caudate nucleus, and subthalamic nucleus regulate Response Inhibition (or “Inhibitory Control“) which we can measure in psychometric test batteries. For example, in the Go/No-go task, you are instructed to press space as quickly as possible when a green shape appears ✅, but to press nothing if the shape is red 🛑. Repression appears to be a similar construct to this Response Inhibition, although Freud’s concept of repression went further into thought, speech repression, memory repression etc. These parallels between the Go/No-go tasks and Freud’s concept of repression have been explored in this article.
II: Forgetting Foreign Words
Quote from the chapter: “I must leave it to your own judgement to decide whether you can explain away all these connections by assuming coincidence. But I can tell you that any similar case, if you care to offer it for analysis, will lead you to equally remarkable coincidences”
Contents: In this chapter, Freud discusses another example of forgetfulness coming from someone he was conversing with. In this case, he got the arrangement of the words wrong in a quote. When Freud probed further to identify why the man made the mistake, he uncovered the man felt that the quote was not true given his current circumstances. As Freud put it: “The disturbed reproduction of the line of verse here arose from the subject on which it touched, producing unconscious opposition to the wishful thinking expressed in the quotation.”
My Observations: Part of Freud’s approach was to let his patient talk around a topic for a while (to free-associate). From this, they would go in all sorts of directions, many of which Freud found insightful. I could see this expressed here as Freud let his interlocutor follow his thoughts in all sorts of strange directions, all of which proved to be linked to his misquotation of the line.
III: Forgetting Names and Sequences of Words
Quote from the chapter: “According to the felicitous phraseology of the Zurich school (Bleuler, Jung and Riklin), which I recommend, the phenomenon can be expressed thus: the name eluding me has touched on some ‘personal complex’ of mine. The relation of the name to my person is unexpected and is usually conveyed by superficial association (double meanings, similarities of sound); in general, it can be described as a tangential relationship. A few simple examples are the best way to clarify its nature:”
Contents: This chapter describes another 19 examples of memory “slips”. Freud justifies that the primary cause of the forgetfulness is a psychic disturbance, rather than what a doctor might typically suggest being intoxication, a migraine, poor memory. Freud uses the following parable to show the psychical influence on forgetfulness as primary: If someone were walking in a dark alley at night and were robbed, they would not report to the police that the “darkness and isolation robbed them”. That would be strange; they were rather robbed by a thief aided by the darkness and isolation.”
IV: On Childhood Memories and Screen Memories
Quote from the chapter: “The neutral memories of childhood owe their existence to a process of displacement; as reproduced, they are substitutes for other, genuinely significant impressions, the memory of which can be elicited by psychic analysis although resistance prevents their direct reproduction. Since they owe their retention in the mind not to their own content but to its associative connection with another, repressed subject, they have a good claim to be described, in the term I have adopted for them, as ‘screen memories’.”
Contents: Freud observed how neutral and uninteresting memories from childhood tend to be. He makes the case that these memories could sometimes be “screen memories”. Named this because they act as a screen for a more significant memory that is tangentially connected to this seemingly mundane childhood memory. These slips of memory are similar in some ways to those described in previous chapters. However, these are more permanent disturbances to the patient’s memories rather than slips of words and names. Within the screen memory, deeper clues to its meaning and what it is screening out can be found if one chooses to look closely at the contents of the memory, and the words used to describe the memory.
My Observations: This chapter highlights Freud’s ever-inquisitive nature towards the mind. Not taking anything as a given, but looking for clues in anything that could illuminate a person’s unconscious thoughts and drives to help bring about healing.
It also reminded me of why people who teach Freud will often say you have to be careful when psychoanalysing someone’s memories. There is potential to impose a false memory that was never there. Encouraging the participant, like Freud, to look for hidden meaning and connections could not be necessary and harmful if we try to “force it”; Or as aptly quoted in the previous chapter: “You Freudians will go on looking for the causes of mental illnesses until you fall mentally ill yourselves.”
V: Slips of the Tongue
Quote from the chapter: “‘What is your son’s regiment?’ a lady was asked. She replied: ‘The 42nd Mörder [‘murderers’, in error for Mörser, ‘mortars’].’”
Contents: This chapter covers what we would typically consider a “Freudian Slip” – when a person means to say one thing but says another. Rather than forgetfulness, these slips involve where a person’s speech is disturbed by an unconscious desire to say something different than intended.
My Observations: Freudian slips are typically glazed over quickly in a psych class with the joke about saying one thing but meaning my mother. What stood out to me was the sheer depth of information which Freud perceives to be linked to such slips. Entire chapters are written on how a small slip uncovers deep psychological truths that the person themselves is not initially aware of. Overall this chapter was hard to get through as it contains more than fifty slip examples, which gets old fast. A few good examples would have sufficed.
VI: Slips in Reading and Slips of the Pen
Quote from the chapter: “‘Sitting in the tram, I was thinking that many of the friends of my youth, who had always been considered delicate and frail, now seemed able to stand up to the harshest of conditions which would certainly have a shattering effect on me. In the middle of this unwelcome train of thought, as we were passing a firm’s signboard, I was only half aware of registering, as we passed, a word in big black letters saying Eisenkonstitution [iron constitution]. A moment later it struck me that this was not really right for a business sign, and turning back quickly I caught another glimpse of the inscription, and saw that it really read Eisenkonstruktion [Iron Construction]’.”
Contents: Here, Freud expands slips into those written or read. Again giving several examples to make his case.
My Observations: There were a couple of strange examples in here where the slips unconscious connection felt a bit forced. For example, when he accidentally withdrew $438 from his bank account (which contained $4380) instead of his intended $300, he went on to explain why this was unconsciously motivated by an interaction he had with a bookseller. For me, this seemed to be clutching at straws. A simpler and more obvious explanation would be that seeing the amount in his bank account he was dwelling on it while he wrote the check. Freud is often stereotyped as the type of person who would find an unconscious motivations anywhere and I could see this coming through in examples like this.
VII: Forgetting Impressions and Intentions
Quote from the chapter: “Time and again I have heard someone say: Oh, don’t ask me to do that, I am sure to forget! There can then surely be nothing mysterious about the accuracy of the prophecy. The person who made it was aware of intending not to carry out the task, and was merely unwilling to admit to it.”
Contents: This chapter follows the patterns of all previous chapters giving examples of how an unconscious disturbance alters behaviour. In this case, forgetting to do something.
VIII: Inadvertent Actions:
Quote: “If slips of the tongue – and speaking is a motor function – allow for such an interpretation, it seems obvious that we may expect mistakes in our other motor functions to operate in the same way.”
Contents: Again many examples of different slip expressions: From reaching for your own house keys, to put in the door of your family home where you no longer live, indicating you feel at home there. To a man who broke an expensive vase by ‘accident’ but more so because he had lost his wife and the vase symbolically represented her. Freud goes as far as to say self-harm and suicidality should be included here as the unconscious forces on such behaviours are very strong.
My observations: In regards to self-harm/suicidality being placed in this category: In such cases, a ‘disturbance’ is leading to an inadvertent (undesired) action so I suppose in some ways this is an accurate description. Freud describes the similarities between ‘unconscious suicide’ and conscious ones. That they both plan a time and place, except one is churning away in the back of someone’s mind rather than a direct plan. To fully understand this concept I recommend reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This book brilliantly captures the psychological processes which play out in both the conscious and unconscious movement to an undesired behaviour and shows that the border between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ behaviour is actually very thin.
Reading this chapter also brought to mind Alien Hand Syndrome where someone’s limbs act with different intentions to the individual. This could be considered an extreme version of ‘inadvertent actions’. Hypotheses on the causes of Alien Hand Syndrome (See video below) are that there is damage to parts of the brain responsible for Integration and Inhibition of various brain functions. As described in my observations of Chapter I and individuals Response Inhibition seems to be at play in all inadvertent actions, whether they be slips, or in the extreme, aliens hands.
IX: Symptomatic and Fortuitous Actions
Quote: “The first kind (like playing with a watch-chain, twirling a moustache, and so on), which may almost look like personal habits, are close to the many kinds of nervous tics and should probably be studied in connection with them. Among the second group I would classify playing with a stick one is holding, doodling with a pencil in one’s hand, chinking coins in the pocket, kneading crumbs and other plastic substances, fiddling with one’s clothes in a number of ways, and many other such actions. Psychic treatment commonly shows that sense and meaning, which have been denied any other expression, are concealed beneath these playful activities… (Later in the chapter) These symptomatic actions can be observed in the most inexhaustible profusion in both the health and the sick deserve our interest for several reasons. They often give the doctor valuable help in finding his way in new or unfamiliar circumstances, and they are extremely revealing to the observer of human nature, sometimes uncovering even more than he wanted to know.”
Contents: Here Freud describes how even the most insignificant unconscious action with seemingly no intent can still be symptomatic of some unconscious processes. In one analysis where he deeply analyses why a doctor placed an old stethoscope on his desk rather than where he usually would (the draw) he concludes by stating “this analysis reminds us once again what far-reaching insights into mental life “innocent” and “pointless” actions afford us, and how early in life a tendency to symbolization is developed.” In this case, the stethoscope symbolised both a phallus to represent his attraction to some of his patients, as well as a sword to act as a barrier that he would not cross.
My Observations: I think Freud through free association could get anyone to link a unique unconscious motive to a behaviour. In a general analysis, such linkages are borderline absurd, but in the context of working with a patient, it could be wise to look for clues in seemingly innocuous actions. Modern play therapy with children often applies this natural tendency to symbolism to elicit insights from children where they would otherwise be unable to articulate themselves fully. In fact, in this Chapter, Freud gets a boy to make bread dough sculptures to help him open up about his feelings.
X: Making Mistakes
Quote: “Once again, a mistake passed unnoticed as the substitute for intentional omission or repression.”
Contents: This chapter covers more slips but these being mistakes rather than direct slips (although the lines are very blurry between the two). For example, a mistake overlooked in a paper written by Freud himself, someone missing a connecting train, or someone using their friend’s maiden name instead of married name were all found to be unconsciously motivated.
My Observations: Another great quote from the chapter is: “In general, it is surprising to find that our compulsion to tell the truth is so much stronger than is usually thought. It may be a result of my study of psychoanalysis, but I now find it very difficult to lie. Whenever I try to be evasive, I make a mistake or some other slip that gives away my devious intentions, as in this and the previous examples.” This to me captures the heart of this book: That there is truth out there, and a truth seeker can find it if they look hard and honestly.
XI Combined Slips
Quote: “I do not claim that such cases of combined slips can tell us anything we could not learn from cases of slips in isolation, but this change of the form of the slip, while the result is the same, does give the distinct impression that the will is trying to achieve some definite purpose, and strongly contradicts the idea that slips simply happen by chance and need no interpretation. It is also striking that in these examples a conscious intention entirely fails to prevent the slip from occurring. My friend did not manage to attend his committee meeting; the lady was unable to part with the Roman medal. The unconscious motive opposing their intentions found another way to express itself when foiled on the first occasion. Something more than a conscious intention is necessary to overcome an unconscious motive; it takes psychic investigation to bring something unknown to the attention of the conscious mind.”
Contents: Example cases in which multiple slips happen in succession or combined together in order to enact an unconscious motive.
XII Determinism – Belief in Change and Superstition – Some Points of View
Quote: “we fail to recognize the extent of determination present in our mental life.”
Contents: Freud gives examples to demonstrate the even the most seemingly random decisions can be unconsciously motivated such as picking a random name or number out of thin air. He also touches on the fact that some people may object to his ideas as being deterministic or suggesting that people don’t have free will. Here Freud points out that whilst some motivations may be unconscious it does not mean to suggest that there isn’t a higher level of free will that can direct and choose when it needs to, but simply that automatic behaviours may occur where things are unattended to.
Freud also writes about how superstitions, prophesies and strange coincidences could be explained as displaced unconscious drivers as well. He goes as far as to write “In fact I believe that a large part of any mythological view of the world, extending a long way even into the most modern forms of religion, is nothing but psychology projected into the outside world.”
He concludes by comparing the concept of slips, to the source of neurosis and hysteria. “However, the common characteristic of both the mildest and most severe cases, a characteristic also shown by slips and fortuitous actions, lies in the fact that the phenomena can be traced back to incompletely suppressed psychic material which, although displaced from the conscious mind, is not, however, deprived of all ability to express itself.“
My Observations: This reminds me of the experiments where participants were asked to randomly select one of two buttons whilst under an MRI. They found that they could predict which button a person would press six seconds before they pressed the button. Does this mean we have no free will? Who knows.
Connection to Alfred Adler: After reading the never-ending (and sometimes nonsensical) connections to the unconscious, I can understand why Alfred Adler choose to focus on the unique goal-oriented nature of a person rather than psychoanalysis of the past. Sooner or later all analysis of the past will eventually lead the person back to the present to discuss their immediate problem. Although Adler is mentioned in this book as demonstrating psychoanalytic principles, he eventually split from the Freudian psychoanalytical school of thinking and started the school of Individual Psychology which focuses on the present situation in relation to an individual’s goals. This led to his split from the Freudian psychoanalytical school of thinking. For a fantastic summary of Adlerian Psychology see The Courage to Be Disliked.
Connection to Carl Jung: Along with connections with Adler in this chapter we also see elements from his relationship with Jung coming through. For example, he touches on elements of religion and myth: “The myths of Paradise and the Fall, of God, good and evil, immortality, and so on could be understood in this way, turning metaphysics into metapsychology.”
The following quote on what Freud would have called the relationship between the Id and Superego mirrors Jung’s formulation on the necessity of integrating the shadow in order to truly act morally: “about the origin of those ideas and emotions which express themselves in slips, it may be said that in a good many cases the disruptive ideas can be shown to originate in suppressed emotions in mental life. In normal people selfish, jealous and hostile feelings and impulses, upon which the pressure of moral teaching weighs very heavily, quite often make use of slips in order to find some way of expressing their forces, forces that are undeniably present but are not recognized by the higher authorities in our minds. Permitting these slips and fortuitous actions to occur reflects, to a considerable extent, a useful toleration of amorality.”