Fifty psychological terms to just, well, be aware of

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user greeblie. Click for source.Frontiers in Psychology has just published an article on ‘Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid’. These sorts of “here’s how to talk about” articles are popular but themselves can often be misleading, and the same applies to this one.

The article supposedly contains 50 “inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases”.

The first thing to say is that by recommending that people avoid certain words or phrases, the article is violating its own recommendations. That may seem like a trivial point but it isn’t when you’re giving advice about how to use language in scientific discussion.

It’s fine to use even plainly wrong terms to discuss how they’re used, the multiple meanings and misconceptions behind them. In fact, a lot of scientific writing does exactly this. When there are misconceptions that may cloud people’s understanding, it’s best to address them head on rather than avoid them.

Sometimes following the recommendations for ‘phrases to avoid’ would actually hinder this process.

For example, the piece recommends you avoid the term ‘autism epidemic’ as there is no good evidence that there is an actual epidemic. But this is not advice about language, it’s just an empirical point. According to this list, all the research that has used the term, to discuss the actual evidence in contrary to the popular idea, should have avoided the term and presumably referred to it as ‘the concept that shall not be named’.

The article also recommends against using ‘ambiguous’ words but this recommendation would basically kill the English language as many words have multiple meanings – like the word ‘meaning’ for example – but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them.

If you’re a fan of pedantry you may want to go through the article and highlight where the authors have used other ambiguous psychological phrases (starter for 10, “memory”) and post it to some obscure corner of the internet.

Many of the recommendations also rely on you agreeing with the narrow definition and limits of use that the authors premise their argument on. Do you agree that “antidepressant medication” means that the medication has a selective and specific effect on depression and no other conditions – as the authors suggest? Or do you think this just describes a property of the medication? This is exactly how medication description works throughout medicine. Aspirin is an analgesic medication and an anti-inflammatory medication, as well as having other properties. No banning needed here.

And in fact, this sort of naming is just a property of language. If you talk about an ‘off-road vehicle’, and someone pipes up to tell you “actually, off-road vehicles can also go on-road so I recommend you avoid that description” I recommend you ignore them.

The same applies to many of the definitions in this list. The ‘chemical imbalance’ theory of depression is not empirically supported, so don’t claim it is, but feel free to use the phrase if you want to discuss this misconception. Some conditions genuinely do involve a chemical imbalance though – like the accumulation of copper in Wilson’s disease, so you can use the phrase accurately in this case, being aware of how its misused in other contexts. Don’t avoid it, just use it clearly.

With ‘Lie detector test’ no accurate test has ever been devised to detect lies. But you may be writing about research which is trying to develop one or research that has tested the idea. ‘No difference between groups’ is fine if there is genuinely no difference in your measure between the groups (i.e. they both score exactly the same).

Some of the recommendations are essentially based on the premise that you ‘shouldn’t use the term except for how it was first defined or defined where we think is the authoritative source’. This is just daft advice. Terms evolve over time. Definitions shift and change. The article recommends against using ‘Fetish’ except for in its DSM-5 definition, despite the fact this is different to how it’s used commonly and how it’s widely used in other academic literature. ‘Splitting’ is widely used in a form to mean ‘team splitting’ which the article says is ‘wrong’. It isn’t wrong – the term has just evolved.

I think philosophers would be surprised to hear ‘reductionism’ is a term to be avoided – given the massive literature on reductionism. Similarly, sociologists might be a bit baffled by ‘medical model’ being a banned phrase, given the debates over it and, unsurprisingly, its meaning.

Some of the advice is just plain wrong. Don’t use “Prevalence of trait X” says the article because apparently prevalence only applies to things that are either present or absent and “not dimensionally distributed in the population, such as personality traits and intelligence”. Many traits are defined by cut-off scores along dimensionally defined constructs, making them categorical. If you couldn’t talk about the prevalence in this way, we’d be unable to talk about prevalence of intellectual disability (widely defined as involving an IQ of less than 70) or dementia – which is diagnosed by a cut-off score on dimensionally varying neuropsychological test performance.

Some of the recommended terms to avoid are probably best avoided in most contexts (“hard-wired”, “love molecule”) and some are inherently self-contradictory (“Observable symptom”, “Hierarchical stepwise regression”) but again, use them if you want to discuss how they’re used.

I have to say, the piece reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s criticism of ‘language mavens’ who have come up with rules for their particular version of English which they decide others must follow.

To be honest, I think the Frontiers in Psychology article is well-worth reading. It’s a great guide to how some concepts are used in different ways, but it’s not good advice for things to avoid.

The best advice is probably: communicate clearly, bearing in mind that terms and concepts can have multiple meanings and your audience may not be aware of which you want to communicate, so make an effort to clarify where needed.

Link to Frontiers in Psychology article.

5 thoughts on “Fifty psychological terms to just, well, be aware of”

  1. Excellent post. I do also like the Frontiers article though, because as you said it’s a well-worth reading piece on why/how you should be careful when using those (and similar) terms. But yeah, the authors definitively should have worded it differently. To be honest this is mostly a problem of their title as they nuance it later on.

  2. Many thanks to Vaughan Bell to bringing our recent Frontiers article to readers’ attention on his excellent Mind Hacks website, which is one of our favorite psychology resources. Our article seems to have struck a chord (both positive and negative…) and is certainly getting folks talking – which was one of our major objectives!

    We’re always reluctant to interject ourselves into online discussions regarding articles we’ve authored, as we generally prefer to let these debates play themselves out among readers. In this case, though, we’ll make an exception given that we think it’s important to correct some misperceptions left by Vaughan’s post. Judging from his opening comments, Vaughan seems to have taken our title far more literally than we had intended; in addition, many of our later comments in the article run counter to his interpretation.

    To be clear, we do not advocate banning (!) certain terms, although as we made clear, there are certain terms and phrases (e.g., “a gene for,” “love molecule,” p=.000) that we suspect are best avoided under almost all (all?) circumstances in psychological and psychiatric discourse. Instead, as we note, we are lobbying for considerably greater clarity in the use of certain terms, especially those that are often used loosely or sloppily in the psychological and psychiatric literatures. When we suggest “avoiding the use of a term,” we typically mean avoiding the use of that term in certain ways and in certain contexts. As we note in our Introduction, we recommend that these terms “be avoided, or at most used sparingly and with explicit caveats.” As we further note, a number of these terms are indeed appropriate when used with certain caveats and qualifications, which we provide in many circumstances in the article.

    We have some sympathy with Tim’s comment above, which contends that our (admittedly provocative) title may have engendered misunderstanding in this regard. With the benefit of hindsight, we should perhaps have inserted some qualifications to our title to explain what we did not mean. At the same time, we do make explicit in a number of places in the article that are not advocating for abolishing terms (e.g., reductionism) as Vaughan implies, but are instead urging more precision in their use. For example, with respect to reductionism, we write that “psychologists who use reductionist as a handy term of opprobrium against their colleagues must be explicit about which form of reductionism they are invoking.” Contra Vaughan’s post, we did not argue for eliminating the term. Similarly, for “comorbidity,” we write that “If authors elect to use the term ‘comorbidity,’ they should therefore be explicit about which meaning (covariation or co-occurrence) they intend.” And the same holds for “interaction”; we wrote that “when authors use the term ‘interaction,’ they should be explicit about which of the four meanings they intend.” We should also point out that in our section on “Frequently Misused Terms,” we provided several examples of terms (e.g., splitting, closure) that are appropriate when used in certain contexts, but at best questionable when used in other contexts.

    Readers are of course welcome to disagree with some of our entrees, and we look forward to the interesting discussions, which are ongoing. But we did wish to correct the erroneous impression that we urging authors to never use any of these terms under any circumstances; as we note in several places, that’s clearly not the case (as a consequence, Vaughan isn’t quite correct that our recommendations are analogous to the strictures of the rigid grammarians criticized by Pinker, with whose arguments we similarly have some sympathy).

    Thanks again, and keep up the good work at Mind Hacks, which we will continue to enjoy reading and benefit from!

  3. Both the article and Vaughn’s response have just been added to my syllabus for the clinical psychology research course that is starting in a few weeks. It’s generally quite difficult to get undergrads to be concerned about definitions and usage, as they are all children of in the internet age. Kudos to all involved!

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