Failed act (parapraxia, slip): definition, causes and types

Failed acts are errors in behavior and cognition, Including memory or spoken and written language, which, according to classical approaches to psychoanalysis, informs about the unconscious processes of the person who commits them.

In this article, we will describe what parapraxia is, what types exist according to Sigmund Freud and how they are given meaning from traditional psychoanalytic practice.

What is a failed act?

Parapraxias, also called failed acts, Freudian slips or slips, fail in speech, in actions, In memory, in reading or in writing which, according to Sigmund Freud and other later psychoanalysts, reveals interference of the unconscious part of the mind in overt behavior.

Some examples of common failed acts might be forgetting to reply to an email about an interview for a job that doesn’t convince us, mistakenly saying a word of sexual content in front of someone we are attracted to, and call the current partner by his or her name of an ex-partner.

The word “parapraxis” comes from a translation of the word “Fehlleistungen”, used by Freud himself. The Greek word means “another deed”, while the German can be translated as “a bad deed”.

The first failed act recorded by Freud is that of a young patient who forgot a word while quoting a fragment from the Aeneid. The therapist determined by the word association that the man associated the term with blood and hypothesized that he had subconsciously blocked it in order to avoid remembering a traumatic event related to him.

Meaning of parapraxias

Freud’s theory, and therefore psychoanalytic practice in general, is based on the belief that it is possible to infer repressed conflicts and unconscious impulses from the many actions and experiences in which this structure of the mind is involved.

Not only are dreams susceptible of being studied as manifestations of the unconscious; according to psychoanalysis, in many cases we can detect similar things during the vigil. Some cases are parapraxia, neurotic symptoms, defense mechanisms or the word association method.

Freud wrote that since failed acts also occur in people who do not exhibit any type of psychopathology, they can be taken as a sign that unconscious processes also exist in those who do not suffer from neurosis or other psychological disorders. .

If the psychoanalytic hypothesis sometimes seems correct, it should not be forgotten that often such errors can be due solely to factors such as fatigue or chance. Let us recall that even Freud himself asserted that “sometimes a cigarette is only a cigar” when they drew his attention to his own habit.

Types of Freudian slip

Freud described four types of failed act: Verbs, or lapsus linguae, those of writing and drawing (lapsus calami), those of listening and reading comprehension and blocks of memory motivated by unconscious factors.

Below we will describe the main characteristics of each of them.

1. Verbal (sliding of the tongue)

Tongue slips are the most common failed acts and also the most well-known to people in general; for the latter, it is very common to use the word “sliding” to designate exclusively verbal parapraxias.

Celebrity verbal slips are very popular on the Internet and on television. For example, Mariano Rajoy, president of the Spanish government, told the parliamentary opposition leader in 2016: “What we have done, what you have not done, is to deceive the people”.

2. Graphics (slip manuscript)

Manuscript lapse, as it is called for failed acts that occur in writing or other graphic manifestationsThey work very similar to verbs. Like these, in many cases, they can be explained by a decrease in the level of attention or alertness, as well as other similar factors.

The concept “lapsus calami” is close to that of lapsus manus. It is used to refer exclusively to written errors, which makes it more restrictive.

3. Listening and reading comprehension

Such failed acts consist in misunderstanding what we have heard or read. It’s relatively common for this to happen at times when we’re worried that our interviewer will bring up a specific issue, but also when there’s simply a term very much in our mind.

An example of this type of mistake might be someone who, after returning from a date with a loved one, overhears their partner asking, “Were you with your lover?” instead of “Were you with your mother?”.

4. Symbolic forgetfulness (memory slippage)

Symbolic or motivated forgetting is a type of failed act that has particularly caught the attention of psychology. It is not uncommon for people to forget to attend medical or professional appointments that generate particular rejection for them, as well as to perform tasks that do not arouse their interest.

In many cases, lapsus memoriae manifest themselves in the spoken language; thus, not remembering the name of a person we don’t want to think about during a conversation would be an example of symbolic forgetting.

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