Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Clarity hinges on accuracy in the use of terminology

50 psychological/psychiatric terms to avoid: inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, confused terms
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. By being more judicious in their use of terminology, psychologists and psychiatrists can foster clearer thinking in their students and the field at large regarding mental phenomena.
“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”
(Confucius, The Analects)
Scientific thinking necessitates clarity, including clarity in writing (Pinker, 2014). In turn, clarity hinges on accuracy in the use of specialized terminology. Clarity is especially critical in such disciplines as psychology and psychiatry, where most phenomena, such as emotions, personality traits, and mental disorders, are “open concepts.” Open concepts are characterized by fuzzy boundaries, an indefinitely extendable indicator list, and an unclear inner essence (Pap, 1958Meehl, 1986).
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 (Guze, 1970). Researchers, teachers, and students in psychology and allied fields should therefore be as explicit as possible about what are they are saying and are not saying, as terms in these disciplines readily lend themselves to confusion and misinterpretation.
For at least two reasons, issues of terminology bear crucial implications for the education of forthcoming generations of students in psychology, psychiatry, and related domains. 
  • First, many instructors may inadvertently disseminate misinformation or foster unclear thinking by using specialized terms in inaccurate, vague, or idiosyncratic ways. Six decades ago, two prominent psychiatrists bemoaned the tendency of writers to use “jargon to blur implausible concepts and to convey the impression that something real is being disclosed” (Cleckley and Thigpen, 1955, p. 335). We hope that our article offers a friendly, albeit greatly belated, corrective in this regard. 
  • Second, if students are allowed, or worse, encouraged, to be imprecise in their language concerning psychological concepts, their thinking about these concepts is likely to follow suit. An insistence on clarity in language forces students to think more deeply and carefully about psychological phenomena, and serves as a potent antidote against intellectual laziness, which can substitute for the meticulous analysis of concepts. The accurate use of terminology is therefore a prerequisite to clear thinking within psychology and related disciplines.

Psychology has long struggled with problems of terminology (Stanovich, 2012). For example, numerous scholars have warned of the jingle and jangle fallacies, the former being the error of referring to different constructs by the same name and the latter the error of referring to the same construct by different names (Kelley, 1927Block, 1995Markon, 2009). As an example of the jingle fallacy, many authors use the term “anxiety” to refer interchangeably to trait anxiety and trait fear. Nevertheless, research consistently shows that fear and anxiety are etiologically separable dispositions and that measures of these constructs are only modestly correlated (Sylvers et al., 2011). As an example of the jangle fallacy, dozens of studies in the 1960s focused on the correlates of the ostensibly distinct personality dimension of repression-sensitization (e.g., Byrne, 1964). Nevertheless, research eventually demonstrated that this dimension was essentially identical to trait anxiety (Watson and Clark, 1984). In the field of social psychology, Hagger (2014) similarly referred to the “deja variable” problem, the ahistorical tendency of researchers to concoct new labels for phenomena that have long been described using other terminology (e.g., the use of 15 different terms to describe the false consensus effect; see Miller and Pedersen, 1999).
In this article, 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. For each term, we 
  • (a) explain why it is problematic, 
  • (b) delineate one or more examples of its misuse, and 
  • (c) when pertinent, offer recommendations for preferable terms. 
These terms span numerous topical areas within psychology and psychiatry, including neuroscience, genetics, statistics, and clinical, social, cognitive, and forensic psychology. Still, in proposing these 50 terms, we make no pretense at comprehensiveness. We are certain that many readers will have candidates for their own “least favorite” psychological and psychiatric terms, and we encourage them to contact us with their nominees. In addition, we do not include commonly confused terms (e.g., “asocial” with “antisocial,” “external validity” with “ecological validity,” “negative reinforcement” with “punishment,” “mass murderer” with ‘serial killer’), as we intend to present a list of these term pairs in a forthcoming publication. We also do not address problematic terms that are restricted primarily to popular (“pop”) psychology, such as “codependency,” “dysfunctional,” “toxic,” “inner child,” and “boundaries,” as our principal focus is on questionable terminology in the academic literature. Nevertheless, we touch on a handful of pop psychology terms (e.g., closure, splitting) that have migrated into at least some academic domains.
Our “eyeball cluster analysis” of these 50 terms has led us to group them into five overarching and partly overlapping categories for expository purposes: inaccurate or misleading terms, frequently misused terms, ambiguous terms, oxymorons, and pleonasms. Terms in all five categories, we contend, have frequently sown the seeds of confusion in psychology, psychiatry, and related fields, and in so doing have potentially impeded (a) their scientific progress and (b) clear thinking among students.
  • First, some psychological terms are inaccurate or misleading. For example, the term “hard-wired” as applied to human traits implies that genes rigidly prescribe complex psychological behaviors (e.g., physical aggression) and traits (e.g., extraversion), which is almost never the case. 
  • Second, some psychological terms are not incorrect per se, but are frequently misused. For example, although “splitting” carries a specific meaning as a defensive reaction in psychodynamic theory, it is commonly misused to refer to the propensity of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and related conditions to pit staff members against each other. 
  • Third, some psychological terms are ambiguous, because they can mean several things. For example, the term “medical model” can refer to any one (or more) of at least seven conceptual models of mental illness and its treatment. 
  • Fourth, some psychological terms are oxymorons. An oxymoron is a term, such as open secret, precise estimate, or final draft, which consists of two conjoined terms that are contradictory. For example, the term “stepwise hierarchical regression” is an oxymoron because stepwise and hierarchical multiple regression are incompatible statistical procedures. 
  • Fifth, some psychological terms are pleonasms. A pleonasm is a term, such as PIN number, Xerox copy, or advance warning, which consists of two or more conjoined terms that are redundant. For example, the term “latent construct” is a pleonasm because all psychological constructs are hypothetical and therefore unobservable.

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