Scientific words often don’t mean what you think they mean. The most unscrupulous among us take advantage of this confusion over technical terms and use it to peddle some rather spurious pseudoscience; others simply miscommunicate science without even realizing it.
“Words matter, and science is no exception,” says Scott O. Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University. He’s previously authored a paper on the 50 psychological terms that are best avoided; now, he’s presented the world with another 50 terms that are misused by academics, journalists, or both.
The Frontiers In Education study, which Lilienfeld refers to as the “sequel” to the previous paper, explains that this time they have focused on things called “term pairs,” two phrases that mean completely different things but are often confused or used interchangeably when they most certainly shouldn’t be.
Take “conformity” and “obedience.” They certainly sound like the mean the same thing – both refer to forms of social influence – but in fact, they do not.
The study explains that conformity is a “horizontal” type of influence, where one or more peers alter the behavior of an individual. Obedience is a “vertical” type of influence, where an authority or several authority figures engender the change in the behavior of an individual. It’s also important to note that obedience is often explicit when it occurs, but conformity is implicit, or at least subtler.
Also on the list are the terms “sex” and “gender”. The study points out that sex refers to biological differences, whereas gender is “reserved for social differences.”
A particularly interesting one is “psychopathy” versus “sociopathy”. We’ve previously reported that the term “psychopath” is massively misunderstood, both in the academic world (as it’s poorly defined) and in the popular science world (where it’s often a synonym for “crazy” or “evil”).
This study indicates that psychopathy is a personality disorder with various traits. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is a general term that can either refer to psychopathy itself, a person with poor emotional regulation, someone who exhibits chronic antisocial and criminal behavior that derived from a social source, or someone who exhibits the same errant behavior but that derives from a psychological source.
Yes, it’s complicated – but you can see why such a list is needed to clarify things.
“An adequate understanding of terminology is a prerequisite for the mastery of every scientific discipline’s core concepts,” the authors note in their study.
“Our list should serve as a helpful didactic guide for educators and students in psychology and related fields, as well as for scientists who describe and discuss their research and science journalists who write regularly about psychological topics.”