Individual Differences


Evidence of the Unconscious

Last updated:
22 Sep 2003

Unconscious impulses leak out in everyday life:

  • Parapraxes: forgetting, slips of the tongue,  accidents.

  • Wit: a “leak” occurring in a controlled manner

  • Dreams: “the royal road to the unconscious” containing latent content

According to Freud, unconscious impulses leak out in everyday life:


Forgetting to do something, slips of the tongue (e.g., accidentally calling your partner by an ex-partner's name!), so-called accidents which may be hidden hostility, etc.


Freud believed that parapraxes are more or less random leaks that occur wherever defenses are weak. However, in wit, a forbidden impulse comes out in a controlled manner. Freud saw wit as essentially a form of sublimation.  An impulse that would be anxiety provoking or even harmful is vented in an enjoyable way. Wit is therefore the safe expression of evil according to Freud. Of course, the most common themes of wit are sex, violence and bodily elimination - all Freud’s favourites! The forbidden impulse is not just being expressed by the person telling the joke but by those who laugh at it. The purpose of wit or a joke is to allow a forbidden impulse to be release in such a way that anxiety can be avoided.


“The royal road to the unconscious”. What most of us think of as the dream i.e. the actual sensory content, Freud called the manifest content. He believed however that there are unconscious thoughts, feelings and urges which give rise to the manifest content. This he termed the latent content of the dream. Freud felt latent content came from 3 sources:

  1. Sensory stimulation (lightning, telephone) that can prompt as well as be incorporated into a dream.

  2. Current concerns: incorporating these anxieties into a dream will prevent them from waking you.

  3. Unconscious id impulses which the ego has blocked while you’re awake - often childhood conflicts.