What a slip of the tongue really says

Last updated 14:33 23/10/2012
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SLIP-UP: Most of us live in fear of accidentally calling our partner by an ex's name.

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Say what you really think - are slip-ups Freudian or just a sign of stress?

Are you always saying the wrong thing or tripping over your words? Do you find yourself revealing secrets when you fully intended to keep them to yourself?  

Most of us live in fear of accidentally calling our partner by an ex's name or perhaps you've been told not to talk about someone's physical shortcomings only to blurt out an insult without thinking. 

So what do these verbal gaffes reveal about us? Do they betray our deepest thoughts and desires or are they innocent mix ups that we can avoid making?

Slips of the tongue are almost inevitable, writes Jena Pincott in Psychology Today. "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 seven and 22 verbal slips."

"We all make these slips," agrees associate professor Erica Frydenberg, a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and a clinical and educational psychologist from the University of Melbourne. "One reason is that our unconscious is working," she explains. "I want to compliment you but really I think you're pretty ugly so I say something that is not actually appropriate. I might want to say 'you're frightfully beautiful' and instead say something like 'you're frightful'".

Dr Amy Reichelt, a Research Fellow in Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of New South Wales has a different explanation for why we sometimes say the wrong thing. "The most poignant reason would be when we are stressed, for example, but having to do a speech in public or when talking to someone very important. This can be because the area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning behaviours, judgement, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behaviour, becomes less engaged when stressed," she says.

Perhaps this is why some politicians, such as former US president George W Bush, are well-known for their verbal blunders. As he once said, "For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan. We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex...uh...setbacks."

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On another occasion, addressing teachers on NBC television, he said "I'd like to spank all teachers", when presumably he really wanted to thank them. Television reporters too are renowned for making gaffes - as one demonstrated when she explained that Tiger Woods had withdrawn from a golf tournament because of a "bulging di** in his back, instead of a "bulging disc" in his back.

When we try not to think of a subject, we are more likely to actually think of it and then say it, explains Reichelt. "Again this comes down to stress, inhibition and reduced control by the frontal cortex," she says. "I once had to do a talk about the frontal cortex and one of my colleagues joked for me not to get the "Fr" and "C" round the wrong way. This of course would be somewhat disastrous if I let it slip in front of an audience of science professors, and it was at the forefront of my mind. When you have to withhold a response it requires greater cognitive demands. You're much more likely to slip up and as you are exerting precious cognitive resources on inhibiting saying something whilst simultaneously trying to conduct an engaging conversation."

As Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University who studies the role of thought in self-control points out in Psychology Today: "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 frequency with which we use certain words can also reveal things about us we may rather keep hidden. "I know really distinguished people who use 'I' a lot which is also a way of reflecting ego," says Frydenberg. "I can think of the most capable and distinguished people who in public life use a lot of the first person which is really saying 'look at what I've done' or 'give me credit for what I've done'."

On the other hand, the absence of 'I' can demonstrate that a person is trying to deliberately conceal something. "Liars don't use the word I because they don't want to be caught out," she says.

To help guard against making verbal gaffes, Frydenburg says it is important to "be aware of what you really think and be genuine about what you say." She gives this advice: "How you think affects how you feel and how you feel affects how you express yourself. Your words are a mirror to your thoughts and your feelings. Think of yourself as being totally transparent. If everybody can see what you're thinking or what you're feeling then you will start expressing yourself more genuinely. You can relax and be yourself."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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