Beware These Terms in Psychology (and Why) #6


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)

26. Reliable and Valid

Reliable and valid have become some of the most important terminology in psychology academic-speak. They are stressed every time a psychological measurement is brought up to indicate that ‘this thing is safe and appropriate for use’, which is a fair precaution. Yet, there are substantial problems with this statement, which can be broken down into three parts.

Firstly, all psychological tests and measurements are forever ‘work in progress’, which the validation process never stops. Tests are not divided into ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’ camps. No test is ever ‘conclusively validated’, but they can ‘obtain substantial evidence to support its use’.

Secondly, there are multiple indicators of ‘reliability and validity’, which the term on its own can mislead people to believe that they are unified constructs. Reliability itself has different types, such as internal consistency (how consistently the items measure the same thing), test-retest reliability (how consistent are the scores when the test is repeated), and the inter-rater reliability (how much people agree on what the test captures). It is not uncommon that these different standards don’t match up at all. The same goes for standards for validity. Articles that claim their tests to be reliable and valid very often pick only certain standards which they meet, but downplay the aspects which they didn’t.

Thirdly, reliability and validity depends on the samples which the test is being used on. They are not inherent properties of the test, but rather point to the property of an interaction between the test and its intended sample. So when thinking about the reliability and validity of the test, it is important to consider the appropriateness of the persons taking the test.

Long story short, we have to understand that reliability and validity are not simple constructs that are inherent in the test. They refer to multiple standards which a test has to meet based on a specific sample, and that they are forever a work in progress.

27. Scientific Method

When we hear the term ‘scientific method’, a series of grand intellectual stories unfold on our minds which we propose theories and hypotheses, test fit of data and theory, revise and continue. In essence, science is uncovering truths following a series of monolithic logical steps. As grand as that may sound, this is rarely how scientific research unfolds. If you follow personal anecdotes of scientists with regards to their work, you will notice that a lot of creative thinking, unorthodox observation, and contextualizing play impressive roles in science.

It might be even wise to suggest that a unifying ‘scientific method’ do not exist. Science is not a method, but an approach towards our reality that seeks to reduce mistakes we make using different set of tools. As scientists, we should seek out to understand our reality together through minimizing mistakes we can make when we make claims. Science is less of a method to be ‘more right’, but more of an attitude and approach towards knowledge so that we may be ‘less wrong’.

28. Acting Out

We often use the term ‘acting out’ when we intend to describe socially deviant and antagonistic behavior. Whether it is a schoolboy aggressively retaliating towards his bullies, a teenage girl staying out of home late, or a normally docile student skipping school, we tend to slap the ‘acting out’ label on them, dismissing their internal struggles of growth and unmet needs. The term ‘acting out’ in fact has psychoanalytical origins, which is used to describe individuals behaving in a way that their ‘superego’ forbids. Outside of psychoanalytic case conceptualization, we need to take ‘acting out’ out of mainstream dialogue and stop using it for every single inappropriate behavior, which has countless factors motivating and facilitating it.

29. Medical Model

Psychologists, especially those of the positive or humanistic school, tend to contrast their own ideas of well being with the ruthless entity known as the ‘medical model’. Whether the ‘medical model’ refers to using categories for mental illness, emphasis on a biologically driven cause-and-effect explanations, assumptions of physicians and medicine being more important than psychotherapists (‘how dare they?!’), focus on pathology and weakness rather than strengths and resources, or not recognizing the free will of the individuals in need, nobody could agree on which of the above describes the ‘medical model’.

It is almost as if ‘medical model’ was just a strawman made up to contrast with the popular ‘biopsychosocial model’. In its present state, the term is too unhelpful as it is simply too vague for any useful discussion other than indicate an antagonistic attitude towards other medical professionals.

Revision from the writer: After reading the book ‘The Great Psychothearpy Debate‘ by Bruce Wampold, I now see the use for the term ‘Medical Model’ only when contrasted to the Contextual Model of psychotherapy. The original point about vagueness still stands, but there is now meaningful use for the term: it is one way of understanding ‘how psychotherapy works’ through specfic mechanisms of change and ingrediens, when contrasted to Wampold’s Contextual Model (which considers expectancies, relationship, and promoting healthy tendencies).

30. Steep Learning Curve

We all have at one point used this to describe difficulty of mastering a certain skill, like walking up a steep hill.

But if we were to examine this reasoning logically with regards to learning theory, a steep slope actually indicates the skill being learned quickly (just envision a simple line chart with difficulty on the vertical y axis and time spent on the horizontal x axis!). The phrase only holds true as a metaphor about learning difficulty, but be very careful about using it academically. Actually, we are probably better off not using the phrase at all.

31. Closure

More often than not, ‘closure’ is used to refer to the finishing of ‘unresolved business’ in counselling and motivation theory. It is implied that some kind of emotional resolution is needed for victims of unresolved business or trauma to move on. It is often used to justify capital punishment for murderers, to bring closure for the survivors of murder.

Yet, there is no sufficient evidence that this notion of ‘closure’ exists. Not only that the implied meaning of the term is vague, there is no evidence indicating that survivors of murder and trauma reach this hypothetical state of emotional resolution or satisfaction through witnessing judicial execution or funeral. The most appropriate usage of the term ‘closure’ has its roots in Gestalt psychology, where need for closure is used to describe our tendency to view incomplete images as wholes. There also exist another line of study discussing ‘need for closure’ which is understood as a drive to get answers and remove ambiguity. Closure as we typically understand in the context of trauma and grief may not exist at all.

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