Psychology-related words and phrases tend to creep into our everyday vocabularies. Unfortunately, many of them have been twisted in our minds, and we now use them to refer to the wrong thing — or, in some cases, science has moved on and we’re talking about something woefully outdated. Here are some of the worst offenders from a review of 50 “psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid,” as identified by authors who study psychology.
Brainwashing doesn’t exist
I’m sorry (or perhaps pleased?) to report that brainwashing is not, in fact, a thing. The term was used to describe American soldiers in the Korean war who appeared to side with their captors politically, or who confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. Clearly, it seemed, the Koreans must have done something to their minds.
But that doesn’t mean their brains were altered. After returning home, nearly all renounced the beliefs they had supposedly been brainwashed into believing. And even though the term “brainwashing” has since been used to describe cult members and others, there’s no evidence that any such phenomenon exists. (After the Korean war, the U.S. government tried really hard to find ways to brainwash people, and ultimately couldn’t do it.)
It turns out that people can be persuaded, and they can be pressured or tortured into saying things they don’t believe. You don’t need a sinister psychological phenomenon to explain that.
Antidepressants aren’t just for depression
Antidepressants are real, and they are often useful in the treatment of depression. But as the authors of the psychological terms review point out, the drugs we call “antidepressants” are at least as good at treating other things besides depression.
These classes of drugs, like tricyclics and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are also used for panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bulimia nervosa. They are also not universally effective against depression; it depends on the person and the severity of depression.
Brain areas don’t “light up”
Studies on brain function are often described by saying that an area of the brain “lights up” when doing a task or experiencing some particular situation. But that’s a description based on how brain scans look when they’re published, not what actually happens in the brain.
The bright colours we see on fMRI scans are added afterward, as a way of colour-coding what’s going on in different areas of the brain. And they refer to the amount of blood that is flowing through the supposedly “lit up” areas of the brain, not to whether neurons in those areas are firing or what exactly is happening as a result. Sometimes they may even indicate that something in the brain is being inhibited rather than activated.
Your personality traits are hard-wired
The description that certain abilities or personality traits are “hard-wired” is borrowed from the computer world. Hardware refers to circuit boards and such, and the way that they were manufactured is how they will stay; and we use the term software to describe programs that run on that hardware, and software can be changed at any time.
Certain functions of the brain have been described as hard-wired, meaning that they are permanent features of how our brains work. But this isn’t true unless you’re talking about very basic functions, like the circuits that keep us breathing. Just about everything our brains can do is subject to change over time, as we learn and gain new experiences.
Hypnotic trances aren’t real
Hypnosis is real, in the sense that one person can make another person (or themselves) more open to suggestion. But that doesn’t mean that the person being hypnotized is in a “trance state” that is different than normal consciousness. Being hypnotized just means that you are highly focused, while also being relaxed and a bit more suggestible than usual.
There is no set of physical or even behavioural characteristics that would let you say whether somebody is in a “hypnotic trance” versus just being interested in playing along with the person they’re talking to.
Lie detectors don’t work
“Lie detectors” do no such thing. They cannot tell you whether a person is lying, only whether they are nervous. And if you think that anyone might be nervous while hooked up to a machine and peppered with personal questions, well, then you get why so-called lie detectors are useless.
Lie detectors have high false positive rates (when you’re nervous but you’re not lying) but they also have high false negative rates. You can easily game the system by, say, biting your tongue when you answer certain questions, or thinking about exciting or calming things when you want to alter your response.
Oxytocin isn’t a “love molecule”
Oxytocin has often been described as a “love molecule” because it’s been associated with social bonding. When you look at your adorable child or puppy, oxytocin is probably sending signals in your brain and body to coordinate that “awwww” reaction.
But it does a lot of other things, besides. Oxytocin coordinates the uterine contractions that are involved in giving birth, and it does that so effectively that when obstetricians want to start or speed up labour, they hook you up to an IV bag of it. It also has roles to play with other body parts, including the kidneys, heart, and testes.
Even when we’re considering how the hormone makes us feel socially, it’s not all love and cuddles. In some experiments, it causes people to be more suspicious of those we see as different from us. It may also make us pay more attention to both positive and negative social cues, increasing feelings of fear in some cases. Not really what you would expect from a “love hormone.”
“Multiple personalities” is just for movies now
Multiple personality disorder has not been considered a legit psychiatric diagnosis since 1994, but it’s an idea that persists in pop culture. The closest thing is what’s known as dissociative identity disorder, characterised by a sense of detachment from your own emotions.
The idea that a person can “split” their personalities, with each being unaware of the others, was popularised by the 1973 book (and later movie) Sybil. The book was supposedly based on a true story, but the woman it was based on has said that the multiple personalities were not real.
We’re all using “steep learning curve” wrong
People often refer to skills as having a learning curve. The idea is that you learn more about a subject as you spend more time working on it, and that the experience can be described in terms of a graph with time along the bottom, and your proficiency on the y-axis.
But we misuse the term when we describe a difficult subject as having a “steep learning curve.” If the line on the graph immediately shoots up, we might imagine ourselves climbing a mountain to reach proficiency. But a steep upslope means that we are gaining a lot of proficiency in a short amount of time. This would describe a subject that is easy to learn.
“Personality types” aren’t scientific
Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs inventory have been described as “astrology for people who think they’re too smart for astrology,” and the description fits. Traits like introversion and extraversion don’t exist in different “types” in the population; there’s a continuum between the two, and it doesn’t make sense to divide people into groups where a dividing line doesn’t exist.
Truth serum doesn’t exist
Now that you know brainwashing isn’t real, I have another shocker for you — truth serums aren’t, either. Drugs like sodium pentothal have been used in attempts to make people tell the truth under interrogation or other contexts. (“Sybil” of multiple personality fame did her therapy sessions under its influence.) But it turns out that so-called truth serum drugs don’t make people tell the truth, they just make people more likely to talk. What they say may be true, or it may be a lie. And in fact, research has suggested that these drugs increase the risks of the person communicating false memories and false confessions.
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