Failed Act (parapraxis, Lapses): Definition, Causes And Types

These types of errors in cognition are more common than they seem.

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

In this article we will describe what parapraxias consist of, 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 lapses or lapses, are failures in speech, actions, memory, reading or writing that, according to Sigmund Freud and other later psychoanalysts, reveal an interference of the part unconscious of the mind in manifest behavior.

Some examples of common failed acts may be forgetting to respond to an email regarding an interview for a job that doesn’t convince us, mistakenly saying a sexual content word to a person we are attracted to, and calling the current partner for him 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 action”, while the German can be translated as “wrong action”.

The first failed act Freud recorded was that of a young patient who forgot a word when quoting a passage from The Aeneid. The therapist determined through the association of words that the man associated the term with blood, and hypothesized that he had unconsciously blocked it in order to avoid remembering a traumatic event related to it.

Meaning of parapraxias

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

Not only are dreams capable of being studied as manifestations of the unconscious; According to psychoanalysis, in many cases we can detect similar elements during wakefulness. Some cases are parapraxias,  neurotic symptoms ,  defense mechanisms or the method of word association.

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

Although on some occasions the psychoanalytic hypothesis seems to be correct, it should be borne in mind that frequently this type of errors can only be due to factors such as fatigue or chance. Recall that even Freud himself affirmed that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” when they called his attention to his own habit.

Types of Freudian slip

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

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

1. Verbal (lapsus linguae)

The slips of the tongue are the most common failed acts and also the best known to people in general ; for the latter, it is very common to use the word “lapses” to refer exclusively to verbal parapraxias.

The verbal slips of famous people are very popular on the Internet and on television. For example, Mariano Rajoy, President of the Government of Spain, said in 2016 to the leader of the parliamentary opposition: “What we have done, which you did not do, is deceive the people.

2. Graphics (manus slip)

Manus lapsus, as failed acts that occur in writing or other graphic manifestations are called, work in a very similar way to verbal ones. Like these, in many cases they can be explained by a decrease in the level of attention or alertness, as well as by other similar factors.

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

3. Listening and reading comprehension

These types of failed acts consist of misunderstanding something that we have heard or read. It is relatively common for this to happen at times when we fear that our interlocutor will mention a specific issue, but also when there is simply a term very present in our mind.

An example of this type of error can be someone who, after returning from a date with a person they like, hears their partner ask “Were you with your lover?” instead of “Were you with your mother?”

4. Symbolic forgetfulness (lapsus memoriae)

Symbolic or motivated forgetting is a type of failed act that has drawn the attention of psychology especially. It is not uncommon for people to forget to go to medical or professional appointments that generate a particular rejection, as well as to carry out tasks that do not arouse them interest.

In many cases, lapsus memoriae manifest themselves in spoken language; thus, not being able to remember the name of a person we do not want to think about during a conversation would be an example of symbolic forgetfulness.

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