Beware These Terms In Psychology (and Why) #3


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)

11. Gold standard.

The term ‘gold standard’ is often misused when it comes to psychology, particularly psychological testing and assessment. Some measurements are good, some measurements need more work, some are redundant, and some are ‘extensively validated’. As far as legitimate ‘gold standards’ go, there is none.

All measurements of psychology, no matter how comprehensive and ingenious, have their own sets of flaws and limitations in terms of scope and precision, so be take any claims of ‘gold standard’ with pinches of salt. Responsible writers and researchers should just stick to calling well-validated measurements ‘extensively validated’. In the meantime, it will be useful to just mentally understand any mention of a ‘gold standard’ as ‘status quo’ or common practice.

12. Hard-wired.

Unfortunately, ‘hard-wired’ is one of the most popular terms used by popular science writers when they describe behavior. The term is used to discuss supposedly more intuitive and ingrained behaviors and responses such as prejudice and discrimination (‘we are hard-wired to treat people who look different as an outgroup’), cognitive biases (‘we are hard-wired to confirm our prior beliefs’), and religion (‘we are hard-wired to want to believe in something with a community’).

While it is good to be reminded that we are ultimately biological beings who developed strategies to survive our evolutionary past, ‘hard-wired’ is a very misleading and inaccurate word. Aside from inborn physiological reflexes, no behavior or psychological trait is truly hard-wired. Every behavior or ability we have are not subject can be changed given the right conditions.

13. Hypnotic trance.

It is often thought that there is special state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, a ‘trance’ if you will, which can only be achieved through hypnosis. This myth persists in popular writings and even occasionally shows itself in academic pieces. While this idea have been entertained by various theories of consciousness, there is little evidence that a ‘hypnotic trance’ which is different from normal wakefulness even exists to begin with. Studies from various perspectives failed to find any consistent and distinct marker of the ‘hypnotic trance’. Features that are associated with the ‘hypnotic trance’ such as suggestibility, amnesia, and pain reduction, are present even when people report being alert.

Despite dozens of institutes and associations training and certifying hypnotherapists in the art of hypnotherapy, very few of them are able to fully agree on what exactly happens in hypnotherapy. Long story short, there is no substantial and consistent evidence that suggests the hypnotic trance is a real phenomenon. Perhaps the so-called benefits from hypnotherapy do not require hypnosis to begin with.

14. Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X.

‘Influence’ is one of those terms that should be used with care in psychology, especially when we are looking at factors that psychologists cannot logically control. Psychologists definitely have the right research tools to identify factors that influence others, but the word ‘influence’ is often used in the wrong context and design. ‘Influence of gender’, ‘influence of social economic status’, ‘influence of ethnicity’, are terms that are typically found in correlational designs or quasi-experimental designs.

The research term ‘influence’ should be only used in proper experimental designs, when the experimenter actually can manipulate those factors. The widespread usage of this term occurs because influence can be logically suggested at the data analysis and hypothesis testing (long story short, we can apply experimental statistics to analyze correlational data, while being aware of the limitations). But in real world and psychological theory, it is fundamentally imprecise to conclude that gender, socioeconomic status, education level can ‘influence’ behavior, when all we trying to say is that ‘people across these factors behave differently’.

15. Lie detector test.

‘Lie detectors’ don’t exist. All we have are ‘arousal detectors’ such as polygraphs. While people who lie can demonstrate certain physiological markers, these markers are not unique to lying and can show up in honest people who are probably anxious or unconfident. Seasoned liars can also pass the test easily by managing their physiological responses, such as occupying themselves with other mental activity or distracting themselves.

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