Education

Beware These Terms in Psychology (and Why) #5

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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)

21. Personality type

The whole field of personality psychology is based on the understanding that personalities are real, that there are stable and enduring characteristics and differences we have that can be studied. However, all these differences and traits exist as a continuum. This means that most personality and traits don’t fall into ‘types’ and ‘categories’, but fall on a spectrum of behaviors, tendencies, and preferences.

In real life and practice, there are no ‘introverts’ or ‘extroverts’, but rather people that are more extroverted or more introverted. Some of us are more impulsive while others are more patient. Some of us get angered easily while others hold in anger better. There is no such thing as ‘impulsive’ type or ‘trigger-ready’ type. There are people who ‘tend to be more narcissistic’, rather than narcissists. This is why we should use the term ‘personality type’, as it suggests that there are ‘types’ of people, or that people naturally fall into one or more ‘personality types’ or ‘categories’. People simply don’t fall into types: not all ‘liberals’ are equally keen about open borders, nor do every ‘conservative’ are equally staunch about tradition. Another way to look at this is to understand that people can make small changes in their personality: people that tend to be more introverted can slowly enjoy social company more and move towards being more extroverted, while people that are more extroverted can learn to appreciate being alone and become more introverted in that process. Categories are often only artificially created out of the need to diagnose or categorical research.

22. Observable Symptom

My world as a clinician has become forever different knowing this: ‘observable symptoms’ are not a thing. Symptoms are what the client/patient tells the clinician, signs are the observable features. By definition alone, symptom’s are not observable. You are now ready to interrupt any misfortune soul who will ever commit the error of muttering the term ‘observable symptom’ and look brilliantly snobbish.

23. Neural Signature

The term ‘neural signature’ is often used when researchers discover brain activity that happens during a certain psychological phenomenon. This implies that these phenomenon, be it aneroxia nervosa, decision making, or compliance with social norms, have their unique markers that can be observed in brain scans, thus the term ‘signature’. These discoveries are groundbreaking, novel, and important, but calling them ‘signatures’ is a stretch as researchers have yet to find these patterns to be specific and precise. As of now, the same so-called ‘signature’ can be shared by multiple phenomena, and the same phenomena might not display the same ‘signature’ precisely when re-examined. Thus, we should really avoid calling every single brain scan a ‘neural signature’ of something.

24. Truth serum

It is true that historically human beings have been administering substances to targeted victims in order to get confidential information out of them with limited success. This leads to the idea of powerful ‘truth serums’ being available that can extract the truth out of unwilling people. However, real life ‘truth serums’ are basically powerful depressants that induce individuals into a highly relaxed state. There is no evidence that people in highly relaxed state confesses the truths all the time, or that they can even recall memories accurately. In fact, it is suggested that these methods can be very prone to error, because of the higher tendency to disclose information be it accurate or inaccurate. In the same way that not every line that your drunk friend spews at the after party is to be believed, ‘truth serums’ by no means ensure accurate sharing of desired information.

25. Multiple personality disorder

There are two major reasons this term should no longer be used: 1. In the DSM, the term ‘Multiple personality disorder’ have been replaced entirely by ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’ (DID), 2. there is no evidence that the idea of having multiple fully developed personalities exist.

While we are far from grasping the science of DID, it is suggested that the the signs and symptoms represent personality ‘states’. This means that we probably form different ‘states’ of our selves as a response to cope with unimaginably difficult situations. Evidence from memory studies in DID patients show that they can even recall events across different personality states, despite showing ‘memory gaps’. The idea that ‘multiple personalities’ even exist is probably a myth, which is probably why the term was dropped by the DSM to begin with.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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