When it comes to science, it’s important to be clear. Specialized terminology or “nomenclature” allows scientists to be incredibly specific when they wish to be, but unfortunately, many of these terms are frequently misused. By using terms out of context, or by misinterpreting them – willfully or accidentally – the original science can be distorted beyond recognition.
A new review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has decided to tackle this problem head-on. Fifty psychological terms, including “brainwashing” and “hard-wired,” are declared by the authors of the study to be too linguistically contaminated by their frequent misuse; consequently, they should only be used when absolutely necessary.
“Clarity is especially critical in such disciplines as psychology and psychiatry, where most phenomena, such as emotions, personality traits, and mental disorders, are open (abstract) concepts,” the authors note. “By being more judicious in their use of terminology, psychologists and psychiatrists can foster clearer thinking.”
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The misuse of scientific language only serves to make things more ambiguous. marcovarro/Shutterstock
The media is often guilty of misusing psychological nomenclature. The word “psychopath” is frequently used to describe someone who is insane and violent, but that’s rarely what it actually means. A psychopath, in general, means that someone is able to experience low levels of empathy and remorse, while being socially “bold” and impulsive. It’s a commonplace trait that, sometimes, can manifest as a chronic personality disorder.
This paper focuses on the misuse of terms by practitioners of psychology itself, and psychopath, notably, is absent from the list. In the first category of “Inaccurate or Misleading Terms,” the phrase “chemical imbalance” stands out. Some have taken this term to be a shorthand explanation for those with personality disorders, but as the authors point out, there is no known optimal level of brain-based chemicals, so defining an “imbalance” is essentially impossible.
The phrase “love molecule” also appears, one way in which several researchers have used to describe oxytocin. Also described as the “cuddle hormone,” this chemical does indeed make people more reciprocal to positive social cues. However, it's also associated with negative associations, like mistrust and even violence.
Concepts in psychology are more abstract than in physical or natural sciences, so clarity is paramount. Lisa Alisa/Shutterstock
Under the category of “Frequently Misused Terms,” the word “closure” appears. Most people think it refers to the emotional end-game of a period of trauma, but it was in fact used to describe someone viewing an incomplete figure as entirely whole. The authors note that the contemporary use of the word closure is not only hopelessly vague, but that the evidence that it exists is few and far between.
The paper also revels in picking apart some superfluous terms (pleonasms), including – somewhat remarkably – the term “mental telepathy.” Reading people’s minds using psychic powers means that there cannot be any “non-mental telepathy,” ignoring for the moment the fact that there isn’t even any evidence for psychic powers. You cannot have, for example, a telepathic sense of smell.
The misuse of language in any sense is a detriment to society, as it allows those with the power to deploy it able to manipulate those who don’t understand it. George Orwell once said that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The same principle applies to psychological language, and its occasional warping is something that should be avoided at all costs.
Here's the full list:
Inaccurate or Misleading Terms
(1) A gene for
(2) Antidepressant medication
(3) Autism epidemic
(4) Brain region X lights up
(6) Bystander apathy
(7) Chemical imbalance
(8) Family genetic studies
(9) Genetically determined
(10) God spot
(11) Gold standard
(13) Hypnotic trance
(14) Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc) on X
(15) Lie detector test
(16) Love molecule
(17) Multiple personality disorder
(18) Neural signature
(19) No difference between groups
(20) Objective personality test
(21) Operational definition
(22) p = 0.000
(23) Psychiatric control group
(24) Reliable and valid
(25) Statistically reliable
(26) Steep learning curve
(27) The scientific method
(28) Truth serum
(29) Underlying biological dysfunction
Frequently Misused Terms
(30) Acting out
(37) Medical model
(39) Hierarchical stepwise regression
(40) Mind-body therapies
(41) Observable symptom
(42) Personality type
(43) Prevalence of trait X
(44) Principal components factor analysis
(45) Scientific proof
(46) Biological and environmental influences
(47) Empirical data
(48) Latent construct
(49) Mental telepathy