We live in a time when it is easier and more common than ever to make public mistakes. You know the ones: accidental retweets, reply-alls, Instagram favorites, and so on. We agonize over them, tell stories about the really bad ones, write advice columns about them.
But are our social media mistakes really mistakes? Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis, famously believed that there is no such thing as an accident. To Freud, any human behavior we consider an accident or a mistake really reveals a subconscious motive from the id, the chaotic, buried part of human personality that comprises our basest desires. That’s Freud 101.
So what do our social media mistakes tell us about our subconscious desires? To find out, we contacted William Braun, a Manhattan-based psychologist and psychoanalyst, to decipher the real motives behind some of our most common internet mistakes.
Before we get started, can you give us a little brush-up on Freudian theory?
William Braun: It can be boiled down to wish, defense, and compromise.
A wish means: I want something.
Defense (or prohibition) means: Oh, god, I couldn’t want that!
Compromise means: I’ll have some approximation of what I want.
Most people live in a kind of state of compromise. The problem is, a compromise is never as fulfilling as the satisfaction we initially imagined. A compromise by definition is lacking.
Slips, whether they be of the tongue, typos, or email gaffes, can be thought of as a way our original wish is trying to break through and get more satisfaction. It betrays us by bypassing our defense, the prohibition we put on ourselves for having such a, usually, unacceptable wish in the first place. This is why we usually react to such slips with embarrassment, shock, or horror.
I accidentally replied-all to an email thread when I meant to only reply to a single person.
WB: What’s the wish? One possibility is: exhibitionism. One may not want to admit that they want to be seen by everyone, but a slip like this one may point in that direction. Conversely, depending on the nature of the email, this person may unconsciously want to be shamed or punished. That email you sent to your co-worker criticizing the boss that you just replied to all (including the boss) is a sure way to punish yourself for criticizing your boss in the first place.
I accidentally favorited an Instagram from a very long time ago, indicating to the user that I had been scrolling deep through their history.
WB: Nothing says ‘I love you’ better than Insta-stalking.
I accidentally tagged with my name an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend in a Facebook photo while hovering over them while I was trying to brag to my friends about how good-looking she was.
WB: Didn’t Willie Nelson sing, “You Were Always on My Mind?” Also, I love the word “tagged.” It’s like you are branding her like cattle with your name telling everyone on Facebook that she is your property.
I texted the person I was trying to send a text about. In other words, that person received a text about themselves in the third person.
WB: This just happened to a friend of mine last week. He was sending a not-so-nice text about the guy who just dumped him to a friend. The text went into gory details about what a dick this guy was and how bad he was in the sack. Well, instead of sending the text to the friend, my friend sent it to the guy who had just dumped him. While recounting this to me over lunch, my friend was horrified that he had done this and completely humiliated. Being his Freudian friend, I simply said, “It sounds like you really wanted to tell this guy what a dick he was.” He replied, “Yeah, but not to his face.” The wish slipped out.
I did not check the autofill in Gmail and accidentally sent an email to the wrong Ben, or Bob, or Mary, or what have you.
WB: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This sounds to me like a cigar.
I accidentally tweeted something from the corporate account of the brand I work for when I meant to tweet from my personal Twitter account.
WB: Nothing says penis envy better than having your corporation speak for you personally. By putting your words into a bigger mouth, you reveal the inadequacy you feel about your smaller mouth. Also… consider daddy issues.
I accidentally clicked on the OkCupid profile of a person I should not be looking at, alerting them that I had, in fact, looked at their profile.
WB: Curiosity killed the cat, and now it’s coming after you.
I accidentally sent a dirty Snapchat/text message to the wrong person.
WB: Sometimes the “wrong” person is actually the “right” person. I would think long and hard about your feelings toward the person you actually sent this to. Conversely, like many of these slips, this can be read as a wish to be caught. What if you sent that dirty Snapchat pic to your mother, or your wife’s mother? Ouch!
I accidentally replied to an email I had meant to forward, with a derogatory comment about the original sender.
WB: On the surface this might seem that you are trying to punish yourself, but I would argue that more often than not this accident reveals what you really want to say to this person’s face. It feels good, doesn’t it?
Special thanks to the The American Psychoanalytic Association.