Beware These Terms In Psychology (and Why) #2


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)

6. ‘Bystander apathy’

While some high profile social psychological studies demonstrated that people are less likely to receive help when larger numbers of people are present, calling the phenomenon ‘bystander apathy’ is unfair and inaccurate. The word ‘apathy’ suggests that bystanders are not interested and unconcerned about the victims, which is not true.

In fact, further studies have shown that most bystanders are in fact very concerned about the victim. The source of their inaction is not the lack of empathy, but rather held back by other processes such as being uncertain of the appropriateness of helping, waiting for another person to act, and being afraid of looking foolish in front of many people. The term ‘bystander effect’ would be more responsible and fair.

7. ‘Chemical imbalance’

Due to many psychologists lack of understanding about thorough biological processes, many of us end up using and accepting the term ‘chemical imbalance’ (mainly coming from drug companies) when it comes to explaining causes of mental illnesses. The truth is there is actually no such thing as ‘chemical imbalance’, because there is actually no defined ‘balance’ to begin with. There is no evidence that we have an ideal level, ratio, and combination of chemicals for a healthy ‘chemically balanced’ mind.

This does not defeat the point of medication as they are still helpful as a consensus. But we need to stop ourselves from using the word ‘chemical imbalance’ when trying to offer an explanation for psychopathology. Accept that there is no simple answer.

8. ‘Family genetic studies’

It is a common and good practice for mental health practitioners and researchers to look into biological family members of a patient and try to see if there are underlying genetic-related patterns. However, the term ‘family genetic studies’ is an inaccurate and misleading term to use because it implies that genetics exert a greater influence on psychopathology compared to sociocultural and environmental factors. It also suggests that this method alone can help us easily determine which outcomes are due to genetics and which are environmentally caused, which is inaccurate as well. More robust studies involving genetics should look into twins and adoptions.

9. ‘Genetically determined’

‘Genetically determined’ is not only a ruthless term, but is also an inaccurate one. Considering that genetics form the groundwork for our very existence as human beings, it makes sense that they also have an influence over our psychological capacities. However, most, if not all, of our psychology are only at most ‘influenced’ by genetics, never ‘determined’. Even highly heritable disorders like schizophrenia (between 70% and 90%) leaves a lot of room for environmental causes. As far as our current understanding of psychology goes, genetics determine nothing about our minds.

10. ‘God spot’

There is a line of fascinating psychological studies looking into the role of our brains in forming religious identity, experiences, and ideation. Putting it simply, psychologists are interested in finding out where the Holy Spirit resides in our brain. Unfortunately, these studies are often sensationalized in a misleading way, resulting in the laughable notion of ‘God spot discovered by neuroscientists’ being popularized. While it is true, if not obvious, that brain regions have roles to play in religious activity, there is no single area or spot that is responsible for it. Brain imaging studies have shown that many regions of the brain are activated when the person undergoes mystical experiences. In fact, always be cautious when people refer to a specific localized ‘spot’ as responsible for any psychological event.

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