Beware These Terms In Psychology (and Why) #1


Terminology in psychology are often used irresponsibly and uncritically, which can be a source of unnecessary confusion and conflict. Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfield and his esteemed colleagues compiled a relatively comprehensive list of psychological terms that are often misused due to being misleading, frequently misused, vague, self-contradictory, or redundant. One can find the original academic piece from Frontiers in Psychology here, this writing shall try to reiterate some of the key points made in a more understandable manner.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

1. ‘A Gene For…’

Some medical conditions are caused by a single gene, such as muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. However, this pattern is unlikely to hold true for psychological traits or ‘illnesses’. While it is wise and accurate to acknowledge human biology when trying to understand psychology, as a rule of thumb: no single gene or even multiple major genes can be responsible for any specific psychological traits.

It is important to distinguish ‘genotype’ (the package of genes) and ‘phenotypes’ (observable characteristics accounting for genetic makeup and environment). Knowing this, specific genes (genotype) alone cannot determine our psychological manifestations (phenotype) in any meaningful manner. Feel free to safely doubt the credibility of any article on psychology claiming that ‘there is a gene for x’.

2. ‘Antidepressant medication’

There is a family of medications which can be helpful to alleviate depressive symptoms through regulating neurotransmitters, commonly known as ‘antidepressants’. That being said, these medications do not specifically treat depression, as the same prescriptions are also as effective for a wide range for anxiety related disorders and eating disorders. Coupled with research findings suggesting these medication being less useful for non severe-depression, carelessly calling them ‘antidepressants’ can be misleading.

3. ‘Autism epidemic’

This term implies that there is a massive increase in prevalence autism spectrum disorder, which has prompted a lot of difficult discussions about the underlying factors leading to autism. That being said, the evidence suggests it is not exactly that autism spectrum disorders is getting more prevalent, but rather there are increased likelihood for autism to be. Parents are more likely to seek help for their children due to greater awareness of autism, which coupled with incentives of diagnosing autism and the lowering standards for diagnosis, leads to artificially increased diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

4. ‘Brain region X lights up’

Brain region X lights up when in condition Y’ can seem to imply that ‘region X’ is responsible for our reaction in ‘condition Y’. Methodologically this is correct, readers outside the field of neuroscience can easily draw inaccurate conclusions.

The lighting up of brain regions in fMRI brain scans indicates ‘relatively higher activity’, it doesn’t mean other areas are ‘dead’ or ‘inactive’. Also, fMRI scans reflects oxygen uptake by neurons, which cannot directly represent brain activity. Another thing to note is that due to difference in chemical makeup, some brain regions can still ‘light up’ but is functionally being inhibited rather than being activated. We ought to exercise more caution about claims based on ‘brain region x lights up’.

5. ‘Brainwashing’

This term mystifies what psychologists can do, as if our brains are hardware which we can ‘wash’ and alter its internals and software. We often use the term to suggest that a series of intrusive and powerful psychological techniques can be used by experts to mold and manipulate others’ beliefs and attitudes. In reality, so-called ‘brainwashing’ is no different from series of indoctrination and persuasion interventions that are already well documented in social psychology and marketing. Social psychologists have long studied the effects of procedures such as forging group consensus and crafting vivid testimonials, many of which are practiced in the marketing industry. Even more interestingly, studies done on the outcomes of the original brainwashing procedures during the Korean war did not find them very effective. Perhaps attempting to actively change minds and beliefs in a brute manner isn’t very effective after all.

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