Beware These Terms in Psychology (and Why) #4


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)

16. Statistically reliable

‘Statistically reliable’ is one of the most misleading and most misused terms in psychology, made even more difficult to dissect under the veil of statistics. Psychologists use it irresponsibly out of force of poor habit, and journalists/pop science writers use it uncritically. It is most often used when referring to statistical significance testing, a method to determine if a finding occurred by chance.

Without going through the twist and turns of quantitative research, it is enough to just know that statistical significance is not a great indicator of reliability. Given how complicated human beings are and the amount of free will we possess, it is unlikely that single studies in psychology on their own are ‘reliable’ in any sense. Replicability, meaning whether those findings can be repeated, tells us more about whether a finding or theory is reliable. If you want to know whether psychological claims are reliable? Check out how frequently is the study repeated.

17. Underlying biological dysfunction

Again, while it is true that human minds, behaviours, functioning, and experiencing are all enabled by biology, one of the biggest misconceptions one can make is to assume biology is more ‘fundamental’ than psychology: that biology causes and determines psychology, biology first and psychology second. We can easily observe this in the way biopsychological topics are unfortunately discussed or named: ‘neural bases of personality’ ‘biological bases of behaviour’. In fact, probably every single pattern between biological factors and psychological factors support this idea: biology and psychology can influence each other, or in research terms, ‘bidirectional’.

For example, brain scans on individuals who have antisocial personality disorder found that they have lower occurrence of a certain brain wave during decision making. However, this does not imply that the lack of that brain wave leads to or causes antisocial personality disorder. On top of that, it might even be the traits of antisocial personalities (poor attention span, poor self control) that contributes to the lower occurrences of such brain waves. In short, our minds and brains affect each other, and are equally fundamental.

18. Empirical Data

Surprise surprise! Psychology students and experts often make this fundamental linguistic mistake involving confusing ’empirical’ for ‘quantitative’ or ‘experimental’. Practically and philosophically speaking, the term ’empirical data’ is actually redundant. Empirical basically means ‘from experience or observation’. Which means in real life, there is essentially such thing as psychological data that isn’t ’empirical’. In fact, the definition alone effectively suggest that even qualitative research is basically highly empirical as well (you are asking directly for experience after all!). So do everyone a favor and stop using the word ’empirical data’ in any context at all. ‘Quantified data’ makes a lot more sense to describe, well, quantitative data.

19. Fetish

Fetish is a legitimate concept when explaining certain psychological conditions about sexuality. Some people have developed very crippling and intense sexual arousal when it comes to certain inanimate objects or body parts (also known as paraphilia), which is usually the proper context for the term ‘fetish’ to be used. Do refrain from using the term to refer to other forms of preferences or fixation, eg “Japanese have a feature phone fetish”.

20. Mind-body therapies

Many self-help exercises and interventions, such as yoga, Reiki, meditation, guided imagary, and biofeedback, have been called ‘mind-body therapies’ as they involve using mental activities in a way that can enhance physical well-being. While these exercises can be legitimately therapeutic, calling them ‘mind-body therapies’ is very misleading. This usage of the term needlessly promotes the outdated idea that the mind and body are two distinct entities (mind-body dualism). Another more responsible way of looking at these ‘mind-body therapies’ is to view them as one body part influencing another.

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