Fifty Terms in Psychological and Psychiatric You Should Not Use

If like me you take an active interest in the mental health field — whether in the context of advocacy, academia, or casual curiosity — this article from Frontiersan open-source science publisher, is an excellent place to start. It lays out fifty common psychological and psychiatric terms that are, unbeknownst to most people, confusing, archaic, misapplied, or just plain wrong.

These range from pop culture concepts like “brainwashing” to seeming innocuous expressions like “genetically determined”. The subtle ways in which these can be problematic are touched on in the following excerpt.

First, some psychological terms are inaccurate or misleading. For example, the term “hard-wired” as applied to human traits implies that genes rigidly prescribe complex psychological behaviors (e.g., physical aggression) and traits (e.g., extraversion), which is almost never the case. Second, some psychological terms are not incorrect per se, but are frequently misused. For example, although “splitting” carries a specific meaning as a defensive reaction in psychodynamic theory, it is commonly misused to refer to the propensity of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and related conditions to pit staff members against each other. Third, some psychological terms are ambiguous, because they can mean several things. For example, the term “medical model” can refer to any one (or more) of at least seven conceptual models of mental illness and its treatment. Fourth, some psychological terms are oxymorons. An oxymoron is a term, such as open secret, precise estimate, or final draft, which consists of two conjoined terms that are contradictory. For example, the term “stepwise hierarchical regression” is an oxymoron because stepwise and hierarchical multiple regression are incompatible statistical procedures. Fifth, some psychological terms are pleonasms. A pleonasm is a term, such as PIN number, Xerox copy, or advance warning, which consists of two or more conjoined terms that are redundant. For example, the term “latent construct” is a pleonasm because all psychological constructs are hypothetical and therefore unobservable.

The article also tackles some common misconceptions about mental health issues, such as the existence of an “autism epidemic” or the idea that one can “closure” for psychological trauma. The authors note, however, that this list is not exhaustive, and that plenty of other problematic terms are left out for reasons of expediency and focus.

[W]e do not include commonly confused terms (e.g., “asocial” with “antisocial,” “external validity” with “ecological validity,” “negative reinforcement” with “punishment,” “mass murderer” with ‘serial killer’), as we intend to present a list of these term pairs in a forthcoming publication. We also do not address problematic terms that are restricted primarily to popular (“pop”) psychology, such as “codependency,” “dysfunctional,” “toxic,” “inner child,” and “boundaries,” as our principal focus is on questionable terminology in the academic literature.

Nevertheless, this is a helpful list to keep in mind, whether  you are deep in the field or just seeking to illuminate yourself more on the subject. I certainly learned a lot from it, and I hope you all do as well. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts!


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