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Commonly Confused and Misused Psychology Terms

Many people, including those in the media, do not pay the same attention to detail when writing about psychology as they might about technology. No one describes a laptop as a smartphone, but they interchange envy with jealousy without a second thought, even though the difference is about as vast.

The following looks at some of the most confused terms involving psychology, as well as some of the most commonly misused terms. Many come from this study done on the subject from university professors across the country.

12 Commonly Confused Terms

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they really shouldn’t be. Before you get the answers, test your knowledge with our quiz on a selection of commonly confused terms:

Sensation vs. perception. Sensation is the initial opinion created through the senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.) while perception is developed over time based on all the senses have taken in.

Race vs. ethnicity. Race is defined by biology (color of skin). Ethnicity encompasses a broader base of information, such as preferred language, social customs and country of origin.

Anxiety vs. fear. Generally, anxiety is a negative feeling in the face of an ambiguous but potentially avoidable threat (“I’m anxious over the idea of wild animals attacking me, so I stay out of the forest”), while fear is a negative feeling in the face of a concrete and difficult to avoid threat (“Run! It’s a tiger!”).

Envy vs. jealousy. Jealousy is that unhappy feeling that someone you love either loves someone else or is loved by someone else (it’s the “green-eyed monster” from Shakespeare’s “Othello”). Envy is wanting something that someone else has, like the new BMW 330i in someone else’s driveway or fantastic pair of Manolo Blahniks on someone else’s feet.

Antisocial vs. asocial. Antisocial people actually take actions against other people. Asocial people are just anxious being around you and everyone else.

Delusion vs. hallucination. A delusion is a fixed belief in something that most members of a society or group do not believe. A hallucination is seeing something when it is not there (as scientists put it, “Perceptual experiences that occur in the absence of any sensory stimulation”).

Obsession vs. compulsion. Typically, obsession involves persistent and recurrent thoughts that are unwanted. Compulsion involves persistent behaviors that someone feels compelled to do in response to an obsession.

Psychopathy vs. sociopathy. These two terms are among the most frequently confused.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder. It is often characterized by what appear to be paradoxical features. They include charm, poise and low anxiety (the good) as well as guiltlessness, dishonesty and poor impulse control (the bad).

Sociopathy is not a formal psychological term. Essentially, the most frequent definitions match that for antisocial personality disorder. Sociopaths have taken the traits of psychopaths but have a history of antisocial and criminal behavior. So, yes, Alfred Hitchcock should have called his famous movie, “Socio!” instead of “Psycho!”

Schizophrenia vs. Multiple Personality Disorder. Those with schizophrenia experience a splitting of cognitive, emotional and motivational functions. Those with multiple personalities have two or more distinct personalities (it’s now called dissociative identity disorder).

Symptom vs. sign. Symptoms occur subjectively and must be reported by patients, while signs are seen objectively by clinicians.

Conformity vs. obedience. Conformity is going along with a peer group, while obedience is going along with what is said by an authority figure.

Repression vs. suppression. Repression involves the unconscious acting as a defense by repressing unpleasant and unwanted memories. Suppression involves making a conscious decision to do so.

13 Commonly Misused Terms

These 13 terms rank among the most commonly misused terms in psychology.

Hardwired. This started as a term to refer to rigid cables in electronics, then to computer hardware processes that cannot be changed. Now, it’s often used to describe mental conditions, typically in phrases that describe some as “hardwired” to behave a certain way in a specific situation. However, psychologists say few mental capacities in humans are hardwired, thanks to neural plasticity.

Steep learning curve. Generally, this is used to refer to something that it will take a lot of effort and time to master. This saying has it backward. In terms of learning theory, a steep learning curve or upward slope is associated with learning something fast.

Brain region “x” lights up. Actually, it doesn’t. The brighter areas one sees on imaging scans indicate oxygen uptake by neurons, not areas “lighting up” with neural activity. Among other issues that make the phrase erroneous is the fact that in some cases, brain areas show a decrease in activity when stimulated, so if anything, they are “dimmed” or “lit down.”

Mind-body therapy. This is typically associated with yoga, meditation and relaxation techniques. The issue here is that it infers the mind is separate from the body, when, in truth, the mind is part of the body. So, it’s not using the mind to influence the body, it’s using one part of the body to influence another.

Chemical imbalance. The actual evidence for the idea that chemical imbalances in the brain lead to mental health issues is slim. To date, researchers have not found an optimal level of neurotransmitters or an optimal ratio among neurotransmitter levels, making it hard to define an imbalance.

A “gene for.” One of the most commonly used (and misused) phrases. Scientists are unaware of any one gene responsible for a single trait, such as a gene that defines your personality traits or political affiliations.

Antidepressants. This term is based on research into depression, not scientific research. Some scientists argue that so-called “antidepressants” are far less effective at treating depression than advertised.

Brainwashing. This term, which originated during the Korean War, suggests there is a special way to permanently influence people’s thinking that is known only to intelligence officers and cult leaders. But that’s not the case. People who are supposedly “brainwashed” are convinced using methods used in other areas, such as marketing or political campaigns. This can include propaganda, charismatic leaders, peer pressure, commitment to common goals, forging an illusion of group consensus and vivid testimonials.

Genetically determined. Genes might determine the color of your eyes, but they don’t determine psychological capacities. Most research indicates that mental disorders, even schizophrenia, are polygenic. Most researchers believe environmental influences play a significant role in adult personality traits, as much or more so than heritability.

Lie detector test. These tests detect non-specific psychophysiological arousal, not lies or even the fear of detection. They also are notoriously inaccurate, recording many false positives (i.e., saying an honest person is dishonest).

Love molecule. Is oxytocin the “love molecule?” No. Research shows it increases trust within a group by making people more open to social information – but it also increases mistrust of outsiders. That doesn’t sound like love at all!

Bystander apathy. Those who stand by and don’t help aren’t experiencing apathy. Typically, they care about a victim as much as anyone. Rather, they are frozen by psychological processes that can include pluralistic ignorance. That involves having a private disbelief in what a group is accepting but going along with it because you believe everyone else agrees. In this case, a person doesn’t move because no one else is moving, which leads them to believe inaction is correct. Other processes that could freeze them are diffusion of responsibility (taking less responsibility when others are around) and the fear of looking foolish.

Personality type. Humanity is not like a box of chocolates, where each person is a different flavor. Personalities are fluid, attitudes change with time and, as anyone can tell you from experience, people are just plain inconsistent in how they think and behave. So, no one is permanently “one type.”

Interested in learning more about psychology? Check out our psychology articles here!

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