Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Pink Freud Matter: Today's Lesson in Critical Thinking

Have you seen this quote circulating on any of your social media sites?

Quote attributed to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) 

Odds are good that you have seen this quote at least once. It showed up in my news feed again recently. This particular image has 1.2 million shares on just one Facebook site (Fb / The Idealist, as in "idea list"). There may be countless other individuals and groups circulating this same image via Facebook. It's on Twitter, too. And Pinterest. In short--it's everywhere.

Furthermore, plenty of creative people have entered their own versions of the meme into circulation. A simple Google search reveals a multitude of variations.

Not only have you probably seen this exact poster--or one very similar to it--but you may have even shared it with your friends and contributed to its popularity. Oh, we love the sardonic and heartfelt wisdom in the remark. And we'd love to ascribe such earthy wisdom to someone whose reputation validates our instinctive trust. Confirmation bias (the tendency to believe statements because they reinforce our previous understanding) makes it easy for us to accept the attribution to Freud without question--as millions of others have done.

However, the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is most certainly not the author of that quote. That's right, we've all been duped! Because ...

Freud never said those words!

Freud was a prolific writer. Many great quotes are legitimately attributed to him. The following links feature quotes gleaned from his writings. At best case, they are properly cited. As you read through them you will notice certain tonal qualities to them that reveal the context and content of Freud's thoughts. Yet no where will you find the "quote of the day."

In Freud's day (the early 20th century), few educated people used offensive gutter terms like "assholes" in serious conversation. Apparently many others have questioned the language of this quote, because a simple search of the Internet turns up many variations of the quote of the day in which the offending term is replaced with something else.
  • I found an "arseholes" version. (Born and educated in eastern Europe, Freud died in London. This term is common vernacular in England today, but was it used by an Austrian ex-pat in 1920?)
  • There are many versions, still attributed to Freud, where the offending word is replaced with benign synonyms: "idiots," "bunch of jerks," or "mean people." 
  • In one version, the offending word is not replaced but boldly over-written with "idiots." This edited version makes it clear that the person circulating the quote did not approve of "Dr. Freud's" language and wanted to substitute a more suitable term without breaking attribution. 
  • Many of the modified quotes are shared anonymously, without attribution of any kind. 
  • Perhaps my "favorite" version is the one published by Board of Wisdom ( and credited to someone supposedly named Laura Rose. Neither the Board of Wisdom nor Laura Rose understand plagiarism.  

Nice try, Laura Rose! (If that is your real name.)

Laura Rose: Altering is not authoring!

So far, we've seen how the popular quote has been attributed to Freud without a shred of evidence and despite the inconsistency with his other, properly attributed quotes. We've seen how the language of the quote has been edited by a number of others, and even co-opted by at least one more would-be author. Turns out, Freud is not the only person people want to believe uttered these words. The quote has also been misattributed to  the award-winning science fiction author, William Gibson.

William Gibson (1948-present) did not say these words, either

Compare the Freud and Gibson versions and note the subtle difference in the last phrase: "...just surrounded by assholes," versus "...just surrounding yourself with assholes." The former is passive, and the latter is active. Unlike our friend Laura Rose, Gibson did not change a couple of words and pass the quote off as his own idea. Gibson merely re-tweeted--initially without attribution--something he saw and enjoyed. Others, seeing the Gibson imprimatur, were all too quick to ascribe his authorship and create posters such as the one above. But the fact is that Gibson not only did not write the quote, he has actively attempted to give credit to the (less famous) person he re-tweeted. Yet the misattribution to the more well-known writer persists.

The question of who authored the quote was put to Quote Investigator ( and researchers there scoured the Internet and written records for clues. They actually searched Freud's papers and contacted people such as William Gibson and asked questions. They found a tweet by @debihope published in 2010. When contacted, she said she just wrote what she felt after a bad breakup. The researchers failed to turn up any prior citations.

Based on current evidence, we conclude that Debbie Hope (Twitter handle @debihope) should be credited with composing this saying. The attribution to William Gibson (Twitter handle @GreatDismal) was based on a misunderstanding because he re-tweeted the remark. Gibson himself never tried to take credit for the quote, and attempted to credit Steven Winterburn (Twitter handle @5tevenW) from whom Gibson had re-tweeted the quote. Interestingly, Winterburn has claimed to be the originator, but his first use (May 24, 2011) was 16 months after that of Debbie Hope (Jan 24, 2010). The ascription to Freud has no substantive support.

Note how easy it is to believe that Freud said these words. The words make sense and we want to believe them. We may even want to share them so that we can be affiliated with the wisdom contained in them. But when it comes to credibility, with which person do we prefer to align our opinions? Sigmund Freud? Impressive! Or William Gibson? Popular! How about Steve Winterburn? Debbie Hope? Anonymous? Or maybe we follow the Laura Rose example and put our own name on it?

From evidence, we conclude the attribution to Freud is incorrect. Gibson vigorously denied authoring the statement. Both Winterburn and Laura Rose claimed attribution in error. That leaves Hope, the person who claims the quote. So far, no previous version has been documented.

So the matter is settled. Or, is it? Why do so many people persist in attaching the quote to Gibson or Freud?  

Pink Freud to the rescue! 

Fixed it! Or, did I? Who is Pink Freud?

So, what is the point of all this? Several lessons can be drawn.

  • Don't believe every poster or meme--they are easy to make. Deb Hope is not the meme artist known as Pink Freud even though I spent all of 5 minutes making the above poster.
  • Think critically about the information that is pouring into your ears and eyes. Don't be so quick to trust the attribution given by someone else.
  • Avoid confirmation bias by asking challenging questions about what you know versus what you want to believe.
  • Always test what you know and check sources. Don't make up a source or accept an unverified source
  • Give credit where it's due. Do not plagiarize or take credit for someone else's idea.

Thanks for reading PhilosFX. Check out these related links!