Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to index)

Psychopathology of Everyday Life

Sigmund Freud (1901)

Translation by A. A. Brill (1914)


Combined Faulty Acts

Two of the last-mentioned examples, my error which transfers the Medici to Venice and that of the young man who knew how to circumvent a command against a conversation on the telephone with his lady love, have really not been fully discussed, as after careful consideration they may be shown to represent a union of forgetting with an error. I can show the same union still more clearly in certain other examples .

(a) A friend related to me the following experience: "Some years ago I consented to be elected to the committee of a certain literary; society, as I supposed the organization might some time be of use to me in assisting me in the production of my drama. Although not much interested, I attended the meetings regularly every Friday. Some months ago I was definitely assured that one of my dramas would be presented at the theatre in F., and since that time it regularly happened that I forgot the meeting of the association. As I read their [p. 266] programme announcements I was ashamed of my forgetfulness. I reproached myself, feeling that it was certainly rude of me to stay away now when I no longer needed them, and determined that I would certainly not forget the next Friday. Continually I reminded myself of this resolution until the hour came and I stood before the door of the meeting-room. To my astonishment it was locked; the meeting: was already over. I had mistaken my day; it was already Saturday!["]

(b) The next example is the combination of a symptomatic action with a case of mislaying; it reached me by, remote byways, but from a reliable source.

A woman travelled to Rome with her brother-in-law, a renowned artist. The visitor was highly honoured by the German residents of Rome, and among other things received a gold medal of antique origin. The woman was grieved that her brother-in-law did not sufficiently appreciate the value of this beautiful gift. After she had returned home she discovered in unpacking that -- without knowing how -- she had brought the medal home with her. She immediately notified her brother-in-law of this by letter, and informed him that she would send it back to Rome the next day. The next day, however, the medal was so aptly mislaid that it could not be found and could not be sent back, and then it dawned [p. 267] on the woman what her "absent-mindedness" signified -- namely, that she wished to keep, the medal herself.

(c) Here are some cases in which the falsified action persistently repeats itself, and at the same time also changes its mode of action:--

Due to unknown motives, Jones I left a letter[1] for several days on his desk, forgetting each time to post it. He ultimately posted it, but it was returned to him from the Dead-letter Office because he forgot to address it. After addressing and posting it a second time it was again returned to him, this time without a stamp. He was then forced to recognize the unconscious opposition to the sending of the letter.

(d) A short account by Dr. Karl Weiss (Vienna) [2] of a case of forgetting impressively describes the futile effort to accomplish something in the face of opposition. "How persistently the unconscious activity can achieve its purpose if it has cause to prevent a resolution from being executed, and how difficult it is to guard against this tendency, will be illustrated by the following incident: An acquaintance requested me to lend him: a book and bring it to him the next day. I immediately promised it, but perceived a distinct feeling of displeasure [p. 268] which I could not explain at the time. Later it became clear to me: this acquaintance had owed me for years a sum of money which he evidently had no intention of returning. I did not give this matter any more thought, but I recalled it the following: forenoon with the same feeling of displeasure, and at once said to myself: 'Your unconscious will see to it that you forget the book, but you don't wish to appear unobliging and will therefore do everything not to forget it.' I came home, wrapped the book in paper, and put it near me on the desk while I wrote some letters.

"A little later I went away, but after a few steps I recollected that I had left on the desk the letters which I wished to post. (By, the way, one of the letters was written to a person who urged me to undertake something disagreeable.) I returned, took the letters, and again left. While in the street-car it occurred to me that I had undertaken to purchase something for my: wife, and I was pleased at the thought that it would be only a small package. The association 'small package,' suddenly recalled 'book' -- and only then I noticed that I did not have the book with me. Not only had I forgotten it when I left my home the first time, but I had overlooked it again when I got the letters near which it lay."

(e) A similar mechanism is shown in the [p. 269] following fully analysed observation of Otto Rank[3]:--

"A scrupulously orderly and pedantically precise man reported the following occurrence, which he considered quite remarkable: One afternoon on the street wishing to find out the time, he discovered that he had left his watch at home, an omission which to his knowledge had never occurred before. As he had an engagement elsewhere and had not enough time to return for his watch, he made use of a visit to a woman friend to borrow her watch for the evening. This was the most convenient way out of the dilemma, as he had a previous engagement to visit this lady the next day. Accordingly, he promised to return her watch at that time.

"But the following day when about to consummate this he found to his surprise that he had left the watch at home; his own watch he had with him. He then firmly, resolved to return the lady's property that same afternoon, and even followed out his resolution. But on wishing to see the time on leaving her he found to his chagrin and astonishment that he had again forgotten to take his own watch.

"The repetition of this faulty action seemed so pathologic to this order-loving man that he was quite anxious to know its psychologic motiva- [p. 270] tion, and when questioned whether he experienced anything disagreeable on the critical day of the first forgetting, and in what connection it had occurred, the motive was promptly found. He related that he had conversed with his mother after luncheon, shortly before leaving the house. She told him that an irresponsible relative, who had already caused him much worry and loss of money, had pawned his (the relative's) watch, and, as it was needed in the house, the relative had asked for money to redeem it. This almost "forced" loan affected our man very painfully and brought back to his memory all the disagreeable episodes perpetrated by this relative for many years.

"His symptomatic action therefore proves to be manifoldly determined. First, it gives expression to a stream of thought which runs perhaps as follows: 'I won't allow my money to be extorted this way, and if a watch is needed I will leave my own at home.' But as he needed it for the evening to keep his appointment, this intention could only be brought about on an unconscious path in the form of a symptomatic action. Second, the forgetting expresses a sentiment something like the following: 'This everlasting sacrificing of money for this good-for-nothing is bound to ruin me altogether, so that I will have to give up everything.' Although the anger, according to the report [p. 271] of this man, was only momentary, the repetition of the same symptomatic action conclusively shows that in the unconscious it continued to act more intensely, and may be equivalent to the conscious expression: 'I cannot get this story out of my head.[4] That the lady's watch should later meet the same fate will not surprise us after knowing this attitude of the unconscious.'

"Yet there may be still other special motives which favour the transference on the 'innocent' lady's watch. The nearest motive is probably that he would have liked to keep it as a substitute for his own sacrificed watch, and that hence he forgot to return it the next day. He also might have liked to possess this watch as a souvenir of the lady. Moreover, the forgetting of the lady's watch gave him the excuse for calling on the admired one a second time; for he was obliged to visit her in the morning in reference to another matter, and with the forgetting of the watch he seemed to indicate that this visit for which an appointment had been made so long ago was too good for him to be used simply for the return of a watch.

"Twice forgetting his own watch and thus making possible the substitution of the lady's [p. 272] watch speaks for the fact that our man unconsciously endeavoured to avoid carrying both watches at the same time. He obviously thought of avoiding the appearance of superfluity which would have stood out in striking contrast to the want of the relative; but, on the other hand, he utilized this as a self-admonition against his apparent intention to marry this lady, reminding himself that he was tied to his family (mother) by indissoluble obligations.

"Finally, another reason for the forgetting of the lady's watch may be sought in the fact that the evening before he, a bachelor, was ashamed to be seen with a lady's watch by his friends, so that he only looked at it stealthily, and in order to evade the repetition of this painful situation he could not take the watch along. But as he was obliged to return it, there resulted here, too, an unconsciously performed symptomatic action which proved to be a compromise formation between conflicting emotional feelings and a dearly bought victory of the unconscious instance.''

In the same discussion Rank has also paid attention to the very interesting! relation of "faulty actions and dreams," which cannot, however, be followed here without a comprehensive analysis of the dream with which the faulty action is connected. I once dreamed at great length that I had lost my pocket-book. In the morning [p. 273] while dressing I actually missed it; while undressing the night before the dream I had forgotten to take it out of my trousers pocket and put it in its usual place, This forgetting was therefore not unknown to me; probably it was to give expression to an unconscious thought which was ready to appear in the dream content.

I do not mean to assert that such cases of combined faulty actions can teach anything new that we have not already seen in the individual cases. But this change in form of the faulty action, which nevertheless attains the same result, gives the plastic impression of a will working towards a definite end, and in a far more energetic way contradicts the idea that the faulty action represents something: fortuitous and requires no explanation. Not less remarkable is the fact that the conscious intention thoroughly fails to check the success of the faulty, action. Despite all, my friend did not pay his visit to the meeting of the literary society, and the woman found it impossible to give up the medal. That unconscious something which worked against these resolutions found another outlet after the first road was closed to it. It requires something other than the conscious counter-resolution to overcome the unknown motive ; it requires a psychic work which makes the unknown known to consciousness.

[1] Loc. cit., p. 42.

[2] Zentralb.f. Psychoanalyse, ii. 9.

[3] Zentralb. f. Psychoanalyse, ii. 5.

[4] This continued action in the unconscious manifested itself once in the form of a dream which followed the faulty action, another time in the repetition of the same or in the omission of a correction.