That slip of the lip may speak volumes

January 05, 1993|By Boston Globe

The slip could have been disastrous. Professor Daniel Wegner was writing a note about a change in his lunch plans to a colleague he didn't particularly like. But instead of writing "I hope you can dine without me," he inadvertently penned, "I hope you can die without me."

Dr. Wegner, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, caught his error before he had fired off the message. But how often has something rude been said or done at the very moment the offender is trying extra hard to be polite?

The tendency to say or do exactly the opposite of what is intended is a human frailty. Ever since Freud, psychoanalysts have believed that such slips were byproducts of the subconscious mind, and now Dr. Wegner and his colleagues have laboratory experiments that support this hypothesis. They have also developed a theory to explain why such colossal blunders occur most often during times of high stress.

"A lot of times we end up saying exactly the wrong thing precisely because we're trying to suppress that thought," said Dr. Wegner, whose latest study on thought suppression appears in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This glitch in mental control also explains why people who try to suppress unwanted sexual thoughts often end up more obsessed with sex than people who allow themselves to fantasize about sexual matters, Dr. Wegner says.

Suppressing unwanted thoughts is exceedingly difficult because of the way our minds work. According to Dr. Wegner's theory, two mental processes work together to help people control their thoughts. The "intentional operating process" is the conscious attempt to control thoughts; the "automatic monitoring process" is the subconscious process that continually scans for failure of the conscious process.

So when we are trying to get into a good mood, for example, we may start consciously thinking about happy or feel-good events. But at the same time, the subconscious monitor is looking for negative thoughts so that it can alert the conscious mind to their presence.

The problem occurs when the conscious mind becomes overloaded or distracted, which often happens when we're under time pressures or emotional stress. Our conscious mind forgets to think happy thoughts or make polite chitchat, and the unwanted thoughts, which our subconscious scanning system has kept in the mind's foreground, suddenly pop into consciousness and fly out of our mouths.

"You meet someone, say, who is an attractive member of the opposite sex," Dr. Wegner explained. "They make you a little nervous, and you want to say the right thing. But instead, all you can think of is the one thing you're really holding back from saying, like 'How do you do? I'd like to bear your love child.' "

Psychoanalysts say the findings fit neatly into what the psychoanalytic community has long believed: that Freudian slips are eruptions of the unconscious mind. But others with a more behavioral or less analytically-minded perspective don't think much of Dr. Wegner's ideas.

Among the dissenters is psychologist Robert Epstein, a former director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for Behavioral Studies. "I think theories like that are silly," he said. "Under conditions of failure or stress, a lot of ideas pop up simultaneously, and in the ensuing confusion, errors of thinking result.

"That doesn't mean there is a lot of unconscious conditions."

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