Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid
August 6, 2015 3:05 AM   Subscribe

From Frontiers in Psychology, a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. "The goal of this article is to promote clear thinking and clear writing among students and teachers of psychological science by curbing terminological misinformation and confusion. To this end, we present a provisional list of 50 commonly used terms in psychology, psychiatry, and allied fields that should be avoided, or at most used sparingly and with explicit caveats."
posted by Pyrogenesis (49 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great, "personality disorder" wasn't there, I can carry on being an armchair psychologist.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 3:35 AM on August 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


This appeals to the part of me that cares very deeply about stigmas and misconceptions surrounding mental health, as well as the part of me that loves academic pedantry:

Steep Learning Curve:
"Nevertheless, from the standpoint of learning theory, these and other authors have it backward, because a steep learning curve, i.e., a curve with a large positive slope, is associated with a skill that is acquired easily and rapidly"

Mental Telepathy:
"Telepathy, one of the three ostensible types of extrasensory perception (along with clairvoyance and precognition), is the purported ability to read other’s minds by means of psychic powers (Hyman, 1995). Hence, all telepathy is necessarily mental."
posted by teponaztli at 3:43 AM on August 6, 2015 [14 favorites]


Hooray! If I was God-Emperor of Earth I'd require "a gene for _______" and "genetically determined" to be glued to teleprompters everywhere as taboo phrases. Biology just does not work that way. More seriously, I'd love for later biology classes, in their sections on genetics, to deliberately revisit Mendel's pea plants to show how there never really was a "gene for height" or a "gene for flower color", and show what really goes on under the hood there.

As for "steep learning curve", I think of that as being in the same class of phrases as "begs the question"—sayings that were born ambiguous, really, and I just can't muster the will to try to be pedantic about them. Let people say what they will and accept the mess.
posted by traveler_ at 3:48 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, it covers one of my pet peeves: I have always found the terms 'personality type' and '"objective" personality test' to be so vague that they almost invite quackery, much like 'truth serums' and 'lie detectors' which are conveniently also on the list.

Much more interesting is the discussion of 'closure'. The term is common and widely accepted in popular culture, such as the desirability to give victims of crime 'closure', that I'd never really given it's actual meaning a thought.
posted by Eleven at 4:24 AM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


 51. Brain disease.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:39 AM on August 6, 2015


I think they bit off more than they could chew with 'scientific method'.
posted by Segundus at 4:40 AM on August 6, 2015


I think they are perfectly right about 'scientific method' but that is an issue with broader scope than just their field.

Good to see the "chemical imbalance" takedown, too. I've said that here and people reflexively took me to be saying that psych meds are never efficacious, which was disappointing.
posted by thelonius at 4:54 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


So we're still good with "cray-cray"? Awesome.
posted by oheso at 4:58 AM on August 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


The "steep learning curve" argument seems overly pedantic, even for a listicle.
posted by clorox at 5:03 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


(33) Fetish ... persistent, intense, and psychologically impairing sexual arousal derived from inanimate objects (e.g., shoes) or non-genital body parts (e.g., legs) ... should not be used to refer to generic preferences for specific objects, ideas, or people. One writer, for example, described the national fascination of the Japanese with smartphones as a “feature phone fetish”
Do they know what a metaphor is?
posted by floatboth at 5:05 AM on August 6, 2015 [14 favorites]


Do they know what a metaphor is?

"Feature phone enthusiasm" would probably be just fine.
posted by busted_crayons at 5:13 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


The "steep learning curve" argument seems overly pedantic, even for a listicle.

Indeed. Other explanations seem to be saying, "Well, that's not really what's happening, even though that's what's happening ... " See, e.g., "Bystander apathy".
posted by oheso at 5:13 AM on August 6, 2015


The pedantry in the list has nothing on the pedantry in this thread.

The list is for "students and teachers of psychological science". So when it comments on things like "steep learning curve" it's talking to people who might be writing things with actual learning curves in them; anyone else can put whatever they want on the axes of their learning curve. It's right about "fetish" and "apathy", too.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:34 AM on August 6, 2015 [18 favorites]


"Many writers, including students, may take the inherent murkiness of many psychological and psychiatric constructs as an implicit license for looseness in language. After all, if the core concepts within a field are themselves ambiguous, the reasoning goes, precision in language may not be essential. In fact, the opposite is true; the inherent openness of many psychological concepts renders it all the more imperative that we insist on rigor in our writing and thinking to avoid misunderstandings"
posted by rebent at 5:38 AM on August 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Actually, 'fetish' is not originally a psychological term at all; it's a borrowed one that originally (if I was them I'd say 'properly') refers to West African charms or amulets, so their right to restrict an extended generic use is questionable.
posted by Segundus at 5:38 AM on August 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


The list is for "students and teachers of psychological science".

Well, that covers Metafilter!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:38 AM on August 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Steep Learning Curve:

I dunno, I've always taken the "learning curve" to be effort mapped against progress -- so a steep learning curve is one where it takes a great deal of effort to progress initially. Not sure if that's an unacceptable graph in learning theory, but it's not a difficult metaphor to grasp.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:42 AM on August 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


Those are good rules, but they want for exceptions that prove them.

(Don't hurt me!)
posted by Chitownfats at 5:47 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Indeed. Other explanations seem to be saying, "Well, that's not really what's happening, even though that's what's happening ... " See, e.g., "Bystander apathy".

Nah. For "steep learning curve" one could maybe say that the term is used differently in a colloquial context, but bystander "apathy" is exactly wrong because the issue is not apathy, but inaction.

For "steep learning curve", it's clear that people are conflating "steep" with "difficult", even though in that particular technical context it just means "abrupt, not gradual". It has nothing to do with ease or difficulty in and of itself.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:54 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Empirical data. “Empirical” means based on observation or experience. As a consequence, with the possible exception of information derived from archival sources, all psychological data are empirical (what would “non-empirical” psychological data look like?).

Both mathematical modelling (sometimes) and simulation research (by definition) use non-empirical data. A quick google scholar search suggests that psychologists use both. If you're going to be a pedant, at least don't ask supposedly hypothetical questions that undermine your point if answered.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:58 AM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Mental Telepathy:
"Telepathy, one of the three ostensible types of extrasensory perception (along with clairvoyance and precognition), is the purported ability to read other’s minds by means of psychic powers (Hyman, 1995). Hence, all telepathy is necessarily mental."


Telepathy is SOOO mental, I must say!
/edgrimley
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:06 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Do they know what a metaphor is?

To be fair, there are significant problems when a technical term and a metaphor get mixed up, especially when you are crossing from technically precise writing into common consciousness.

Look at the havoc that the word "theory" and its multiple meanings have caused....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:06 AM on August 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


I legit stumbled over steep learning curve the first few times I had to deal with the term in something I was writing. I visualized the graph as learning plotted over time and assumed it meant that something could be learned fairly quickly and easily. But looking at the term in context made it clear that it was intended to have the opposite meaning. Ever since then, I habitually change "has a steep learning curve" to "is difficult to learn" in everything I write or edit just for clarity. If it's in a direct quote, I jettison the quote and paraphrase the speaker instead.

I'm not a student or teacher of psychological science, but putting this on a list of terms to avoid feels correct to me anyway. You may as well ditch the jargon and just say it in English.
posted by Mothlight at 6:09 AM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as a layperson, I use "steep learning curve" colloquially to refer to the rapidity with which one needs to master a large skill set, not the difficulty of the skills. And the sooner you integrate them (or are expected to), the more stressful the process.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:09 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I have to say how great this is. The point is not that some technical term can be meaningfully understood in a non-technical context. The point is that misused and inaccurate metaphors can cause both experts and laymen to recapitulate erroneous assumptions about psychology. The paper repeatedly links to actual scientific papers where the authors treat a metaphor literally and thus get themselves and their readers into trouble.

So this is awesome.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:10 AM on August 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


My wife is tenured psych faculty and I can tell how well a dissertation or peer review article is written by her FFS output.
posted by srboisvert at 6:20 AM on August 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


So, I guess understanding the phrase "a steep learning curve" has a steep learning curve?

When I was in high school a teacher mentioned "metal telepathy," and I raised my hand and asked what other kinds of telepathy were there. He responded "wireless." This still rankles me. In his defense, he was not a good teacher, and it was not a good school. It is also possible that he misunderstood "telepathy" as "telephony," although that would just make him wrong in a different way.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:20 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, is telepathy discussed so much in the scholarly psychological literature that it needs to be on this list? I am now picturing a vast technical literature on psychic powers that trips over its own terminology....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:26 AM on August 6, 2015


So, I guess understanding the phrase "a steep learning curve" has a steep learning curve?

I feel like you're just out to make trouble at this point.
posted by clockzero at 6:30 AM on August 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


MetaFilter: The pedantry in the list has nothing on the pedantry in this thread.
posted by ostranenie at 6:33 AM on August 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


I feel like you're just out to make trouble at this point.

I'd call it a fetish for trouble, but I guess I can't do that anymore. :(
posted by thivaia at 6:33 AM on August 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is a really great list! I was girding myself to read a list that tried to take the psychology out of psychology in favor of biology, but I got the opposite. I will share this widely.
posted by OmieWise at 6:35 AM on August 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


I feel like you're just out to make trouble at this point.

I guess I'd have to say that, in this case, p < 0.000.

Now a challenge: use all of these in a single paper. Double points if you can get the all into the abstract.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:43 AM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


In his defense, he was not a good teacher

my client would like it to be noted, my lord, that he is an evil, sadistic murderer and this should be taken as mitigation against any punishment you decide necessary for this horrible crime...

I've always taken the "learning curve" to be effort mapped against progress

"steep" implies (at least to me) that it rises to a plateau, but a plot of effort would drop down again. so it would be the height of the hump (or perhaps the area underneath) that measured how difficult it was. people don't say "it has a strongly peaked learning curve". or maybe they do? now i write it, it doesn't sound that odd.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:47 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


on the list or no, i'm going to keep using brainwashing to describe my forced membership to a restrictive religion from birth. yes i did escape and yes i did eventually unlearn (most of?) the lies and contortions, but it took decades. and sometimes still something will pop up and i'll realize it has just been laying dormant in my brain, an undisturbed example of the damage done to me as a kid.
posted by nadawi at 7:26 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: vast technical literature that trips over its own terminology on a steep learning curve
 
posted by Herodios at 8:12 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I always took "steep learning curve" to mean "you have to learn a lot in a short amount of time," which would indeed plot as a steep curve. As in, you step into a new situation and need to assimilate a great deal of new information and/or learn new skills in very little time. More akin to "thrown into the deep end and learning to swim" rather than "climbing a steep mountain."
posted by graymouser at 8:34 AM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Climbing a steep mountain" is certainly the good way to describe learning curves as popularly understood. Fundamentally it seems like the problem is that academic and lay audiences are labeling their axes differently and then getting confused when the same graph means different things. A psychological learning curve graphs learning and experience. A lay learning curve graphs time and skill. Label your graphs people!
posted by metaphorever at 8:55 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Super refreshing to see an internally coherent, non-reifying, consistently materialist critique of a field that very much needs critiquing.

Many authors have invoked the term “neurocognition” to refer to cognition, especially when conceptualized within a biological framework (e.g., Mesholam-Gately et al., 2009). Nevertheless, because all cognition is necessarily neural at some level of analysis, the simpler term “cognition” will do.

ghostbusting all over the place
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:07 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hm, maybe this is interesting, let's take a look....

1. A gene for....

Favorited, bookmarked, reading listed, PDF'd
posted by JHarris at 9:33 AM on August 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


Pretty much the main reason I posted this, JHarris.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:37 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mind Hacks comments...
posted by Segundus at 12:17 PM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Can we also make this required reading for writers and reporters covering scientific/medical matters?
posted by tdismukes at 12:54 PM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Learning curve" is commonly used to mean "difficulty curve."
posted by atoxyl at 1:16 PM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


(44) Principal components factor analysis.

AAARGH! It burns. It burns!

this phrase is incoherent, because principal components analysis (which is commonly misspelled as “principle components analysis”) and factor analysis are incompatible approaches to data analysis.

Well, except for the fact that they both model the observed covariance matrix in terms of a set of latent variables that combine linearly, differing only in the fact that PCA assumes that all observed variation is expressible in terms of those latent variables (communality = 1) and factor analysis assumes that there are unique variances or measurement errors that are expressible via normally distributed error terms, and that depending on the actual degree of communality in the data one method might be more appropriate than the other. The models are mathematically almost equivalent but it is usually the case that factor analysis is more appropriate for psychological data analysis problems because it is very rare in psychology to see communalities near 1. As noted in the SAS user manual entry on factor analysis when communalities do get close to 1 you get Heywood cases and PCA is actually a more practical method for doing factor analysis in such circumstances. So sure they're subtly different statistical models but they're deeply related and it's super-awkward when people who don't really understand the underlying models go around trotting out the half-truth that "PCA is a mere data reduction tool but factor analysis is a proper latent variable model."

But surely no-one would be so foolish as to...

Principal components analysis is a data reduction technique that relies on the total variance of the variables in a dataset; its principal goal is to create a smaller set of weighted variables (variates) that approximate the variance of the original variables (Weiss, 1970). In contrast, factor analysis relies only on the shared variance of the variables in a dataset, and it is designed to identify underlying dimensions that best explain the covariation among these variables

AAARGH! It burns. It burns!
posted by langtonsant at 2:37 PM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


This stack exchange question and answer explains why you should avoid all mentioning of learning curves, shallow or steep, if you intend to communicate meaning.

The popular meaning of "steep learning curve" is "difficult to learn"; the technical meaning is "quick to learn".

And wikipedia has the classic illustration of learning curve, steep and flatter arcs of.

(If you disbelieve this you can prove it to yourself. Start a new training regimen of running or weight lifting and plot your metrics for the first year and you will reproduce the shape of that curve exactly.)
posted by bukvich at 5:25 PM on August 6, 2015


(if I was them I'd say 'properly') refers to West African charms or amulets

Don't imagine for a minute that 'fetish' is how users of those aforesaid charms and amulets refer to such objects so your 'properly' is entirely questionable. 'Fetish' in the anthro sense has no meaning that isn't perjorative and culture-bound. And if a West African speaker is saying 'fetish' they are speaking from an anti-indigenous religion pov.
posted by glasseyes at 6:10 AM on August 11, 2015


51. Brain disease.

52. Brain Cloud.
posted by Theta States at 12:52 PM on August 11, 2015




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