October 16, 2004

Fear North Dakota

The Oct. 10 edition of NBC's Meet the Press was partly devoted to a sort of debate between the Colorado Senate candidates Ken Salazar and Pete Coors, moderated by Tim Russert. At one point, Coors got a little tangled up and said "North Dakota" when he meant North Korea:

MR. RUSSERT:  But if you knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, the president is saying very clearly, "Even though there are no weapons of mass destruction, knowing what I know today, I still made the right decision to go to war."  Do you agree with that?

MR. COORS:  This is a war on terror.  And this is a--we can say "weapons of mass destruction," "no weapons of mass destruction"; clearly, we should be more worried today, actually, about Iran and North Dakota than we are--North Korea than we are about Iraq, based on weapons of mass destruction.  But I think that the conditions change on an ongoing basis, and we must look at the facts that we have before us at the time we make a decision.

Coors got a certain amount of ribbing about this. M.E. Sprengelmeyer's story in the Rocky Mountain News started out

Put down your accordions and man your battle stations.

For at least a split second Sunday, the home state of Lawrence Welk was declared part of the "axis of evil."

Coors' mistake is consistent with several of the patterns that psycholinguists generally see in slips of the tongue. The substitution was a single word -- though other units like phrases, syllables and morphemes can be substituted, the commonest slips involve either single words (like "Iran and North Dakota" for "Iran and North Korea") or single phonemes (like "you have tasted the whole worm" for "you have wasted the whole term"). The substitution preserved syntactic category, and the substituted word was prosodically similar to the target -- both are three-syllable words with second-syllable stress. This didn't involve the intrusion of another word from the same discourse (like "balls on base" for "base on balls") -- it was a "non-contextual substitution" in the psycholinguistic jargon -- and as usual in such cases, the subsituted word is similar to the target in meaning and in collocational properties.

However, this case does not seem to confirm the best-known psychological theory about misspeaking. There's no obvious sense in which saying Dakota instead of Korea in this debate revealed anything about Pete Coors' unconscious fears or desires. In other words, it doesn't seem to have been a Freudian slip.

Of course, Freud's analysis of Freudian slips was generally anything but obvious. In chapter one of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he devoted 1,200 words and a diagram to explaining why he himself once had trouble retrieving the name of the painter Signorelli. His explanation involved concerns about sexual disfunction among the Turks of Bosnia, and a message that he had gotten a few weeks earlier while staying in the town of Trafoi, and -- well, read it for yourself, I've reproduced it at the end of this post. So maybe Pete Coors substituted Dakota for Korea because he'd been thinking about bacterial growth in sanitary napkins, and was worried about some bad polling trends that he learned about while campaigning in Cripple Creek. Or something else equally obscure and random. But I doubt it.

A half-century of research into slips of the tongue suggests that Freud's attempt to provide them with unconscious motivations was at best unnecessary. We screw up in speaking because speaking is incredibly hard. Our poor overloaded frontal lobes are trying to select packages of multi-modal associations from the other end of the cortex at a rate of three or four per second, arrange them in complex patterns, and use them to coordinate the multi-dimensional wiggling of our eating and breathing apparatus so as to modulate sound waves in a way that will cause some mostly-unknown fellow humans to experience analogous patterns of structured associations, and consequently modify their mental state in ways advantageous to us. When it comes to talking, our unconscious fears and desires are the least of our problems.

[Some more discussion of this point, with links, can be found in the notes for lecture 17 of my intro linguistics course at Penn].

[From Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), chapter one]:

I vainly strove to recall the name of the master who made the imposing frescoes of the "Last Judgment" in the dome of Orvieto. Instead of the lost name -- Signorelli -- two other names of artists -- Botticelli and Boltraffio -- obtruded themselves, names which my judgment immediately and definitely rejected as being incorrect. When the correct name was imparted to me by an outsider I recognized it at once without any hesitation. The examination of the influence and association paths which caused the displacement from Signorelli to Botticelli and Boltraffio led to the following results:--

(a) The reason for the escape of the name Signorelli is neither to be sought in the strangeness in itself of this name nor in the psychologic character of the connection in which it was inserted. The forgotten name was just as familiar to me as one of the substitutive names -- Botticelli -- and somewhat more familiar than the other substitute -- Boltraffio -- of the possessor of which I could hardly say more than that he belonged to the Milanese School. The connection, too, in which the forgetting of the name took place appeared to me harmless, and led to no further explanation. I journeyed by carriage with a stranger from Ragusa, Dalmatia, to a station in Herzegovina. Our conversation drifted to travelling in Italy, and I asked my companion whether he had been in Orvieto and had seen there the famous frescoes of --

(b) The forgetting of the name could not be explained until after I had recalled the theme discussed immediately before this conversation. This forgetting then made itself known as a disturbance of the newly emerging theme caused by the theme preceding it. In brief, before I asked my travelling companion if he had been in Orvieto we had been discussing the customs of the Turks living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had related what I heard from a colleague who was practising medicine among them, namely, that they show full confidence in the physician and complete submission to fate. When one is compelled to inform them that there is no help for the patient, they answer: "Sir (Herr), what can I say? I know that if he could be saved you would save him." In these sentences alone we can find the words and names: Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Herr (sir), which may be inserted in an association series between Signorelli, Botticelli, and Boltraffio.

(c) I assume that the stream of thoughts concerning the customs of the Turks in Bosnia, etc., was able to disturb the next thought, because I withdrew my attention from it before it came to an end. For I recalled that I wished to relate a second anecdote which was next to the first in my memory. These Turks value the sexual pleasure above all else, and at sexual disturbances merge into an utter despair which strangely contrasts with their resignation at the peril of losing their lives. One of my colleague's patients once told him: "For you know, sir (Herr), if that ceases, life no longer has any charm."

I refrained from imparting this characteristic feature because I did not wish to touch upon such a delicate theme in conversation with a stranger. But I went still further; I also deflected my attention from the continuation of the thought which might have associated itself in me with the theme "Death and Sexuality." I was at that time under the after-effects of a message which I had received a few weeks before, during a brief sojourn in Trafoi. A patient on whom I had spent much effort had ended his life on account of an incurable sexual disturbance. I know positively that this sad event, and everything connected with it, did not come to my conscious recollection on that trip in Herzegovina. However, the agreement between Trafoi and Boltraffio forces me to assume that this reminiscence was at that time brought to activity despite all the intentional deviation of my attention.

(d) I can no longer conceive the forgetting of the name Signorelli as an accidental occurrence. I must recognize in this process the influence of a motive. There were motives which actuated the interruption in the communication of my thoughts (concerning the customs of the Turks, etc.), and which later influenced me to exclude from my consciousness the thought connected with them, and which might have led to the message concerning the incident in [p. 8] Trafoi -- that is, I wanted to forget something, I repressed something. To be sure, I wished to forget something other than the name of the master of Orvieto; but this other thought brought about an associative connection between itself and this name, so that my act of volition missed the aim, and I forgot the one against my will, while I intentionally wished to forget the other. The disinclination to recall directed itself against the one content; the inability to remember appeared in another. The case would have been obviously simpler if this disinclination and the inability to remember had concerned the same content. The substitutive names no longer seem so thoroughly justified as they were before this explanation. They remind me (after the form of a compromise) as much of what I wished to forget as of what I wished to remember, and show me that my object to forget something was neither a perfect success nor a failure.

(e) The nature of the association formed between the lost name and the repressed theme (death and sexuality, etc.), containing the names of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Trafoi, is also very strange. In the scheme inserted here, which originally appeared in 1898, an attempt is made to graphically represent these associations.

The name Signorelli was thus divided into two parts. One pair of syllables (elli) returned [p. 9]

unchanged in one of the substitutions, while the other had gained, through the translation of signor (sir, Herr), many and diverse relations to the name contained in the repressed theme, but was lost through it in the reproduction. Its substitution was formed in a way to suggest that a displacement took place along the same associations -- "Herzegovina and Bosnia" -- regardless of the sense and acoustic demarcation. The names were therefore treated in this process like the written pictures of a sentence which is to be transformed into a picture-puzzle (rebus). No information was given to consciousness concerning the whole process, which, instead of the name Signorelli, was thus changed to the substitutive names. At first sight no relation is apparent between the theme that contained the name Signorelli and the repressed one which immediately preceded it.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to remark that the given explanation does not contradict the conditions of memory reproduction and forgetting assumed by other psychologists, which they seek in certain relations and dispositions. Only in certain cases have we added another motive to the factors long recognized as causative in forgetting names, and have thus laid bare the mechanism of faulty memory. The assumed dispositions are indispensable also in our case, in order to make it possible for the repressed element to associatively gain control over the desired name and take it along into the repression. Perhaps this would not have occurred in another name having more favourable conditions of reproduction. For it is quite probable that a suppressed element continually strives to assert itself in some other way, but attains this success only where it meets with suitable conditions. At other times the suppression succeeds without disturbance of function, or, as we may justly say, without symptoms.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 16, 2004 11:20 AM