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Joe Biden: slips of the tongue can project our own hidden thoughts, fears and anxieties

April 24, 2023

In a new article for The Conversation Psychology Professor Geoff Beattie discusses what slips of the tongue can tell us about the inner psyche.

Joe Biden is proud of his Irish heritage and they say that he has “the gift of the gaffe”, given how many slips of the tongue he makes (and has been making long before he became president).

In various speeches, he has confused presidents Trump and Obama. He also referred to Vice President Kamala Harris as “the first lady”.

Biden recently visited Ireland and gave a speech in a pub in Dundalk in County Louth, where part of his family comes from. He started to thank his distant cousin Rob Kearney for the shamrock tie he was wearing. Kearney had played rugby for Ireland against New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2016.

But Biden’s words did not quite come out as planned. He said: “This was given to me by one of these guys, right here. He was a hell of a rugby player and he beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.” He also did a fist pump afterwards. This could demonstrate his strong emotional engagement with what psychologists might describe as a repressed message.

He had meant to say All Blacks, instead of Black and Tans, the name of the infamous and brutal British militia of the 1920s. Some media pounced on this slip as a symbol of an anti-British attitude and the danger it could cause a political storm. The White House had to issue a press statement saying that it was “very clear” what the president was referring to. President Joe Biden is given to slips of the tongue during speeches.

What would Freud say?

With his family’s Irish history, Biden is likely to know all about the Black and Tans. One of the best known and most stirring Irish rebel songs is Dominic Behan’s Come out Ye Black and Tans (which includes the line “the loving English feet they walked all over us”).

But was there any deeper significance to this slip of the tongue? Was this a Freudian slip, where the unconscious leaks into speech, and if so, what does it reveal about his unconscious thinking?

What does the research tell us? Since the first descriptions of slips by the philologist Rudolph Meringer and the linguist Karl Mayer in 1895, there has been significant disagreement about their cause. Wilhelm Wundt, the father of experimental psychology, explained them in 1900 through the “contact effect of sounds” – similar sounding syllables, words or phrases are often exchanged in spontaneous speech (such as “black” in Biden’s example).

However, Sigmund Freud would say that slips reveal unconscious and repressed thoughts. Founder of psychoanalysis Freud collected examples of slips of the tongue from consultations with patients and said that he could hardly find one example solely attributable to “the contact effect of sounds”.

Instead, he argued that there was “invariably a disturbing influence … which comes from something outside the intended utterance”. This disturbing element is usually “a single thought that has remained unconscious, which manifests itself in the slip of the tongue”.

When Freud asked a woman patient how her uncle was, she answered: “I don’t know, nowadays I only see him in flagrante (while engaged in sexual activity).” Next day she told Freud that she had meant to say en passant (in passing), but Freud later discovered that she had previously been caught in flagrante. Freud’s conclusion was that: “The slip of the tongue of the day before had therefore anticipated the memory which at the time had not yet become conscious.”

This is a classic Freudian slip, which is considered by psychoanalysts to be unconscious and repressed thoughts or wishes appearing in speech, often with a sexual origin. Other psychoanalysts accept the concept of repression but believe that Freud had put too much emphasis on sex.

Research by the psycholinguist Alan Garnham and colleagues suggests that slips of the tongue are much more common than previously thought, and full of sound anticipations and blending of words with little unconscious symbolism.

It’s been suggested that Freudian slips are more often “slips of the ears” than “slips of the tongue”, suggesting that observers only hear about one-third of the slips that occur with a single listen.

Freud may also have been particularly sensitive to mishearing certain types of slips, given his sexual theory, perhaps indicative of what is now called confirmation bias.

One experiment carried out in the 1970s does suggest, however, that external factors can influence slips. Speakers were asked to say pairs of words or non-words such as “darn bore” or “gad boof” as rapidly as possible. Sometimes, the participants accidentally reversed the initial phonemes (the distinct units of sound that distinguish one word from another), saying “barn door” or “bad goof” for example.

Experimenters found that slips with Freudian outcomes (“foxy girl” from “goxi furl”; “fine body” from “bine fody”) occurred more frequently with an attractive female experimenter than with a male experimenter, suggesting that factors outside the speech itself can indeed influence slips.

But this does not necessarily demonstrate the role of unconscious repressed thoughts, rather the psycholinguist Andy Ellis and I have argued that it could be due to simple associative connections. Certain words, phrases or concepts (like “Black and Tans”) are unconsciously associated with other words and concepts (Ireland, the Troubles, the get togethers of an Irish-American family), and are therefore “primed” in linguistic or social contexts like that speech back “home” in Dundalk. As a result they are more likely to be said in error.

Biden is much more prone to misspeaking than most national leaders. Many point to his age or the fact that he had a stutter when he was younger as contributory factors. But researchers suggest that the public are more likely to hear and focus on particular slips of the tongue and sometimes we seem to project our own hidden thoughts, fears and anxieties into these.

April 24, 2023


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