Listicles get published in peer-reviewed journals!


I used a cruel headline, but this is actually a useful list: Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. It’s not just the popular media that mangle scientific language, but also more technical works sometimes slip into misleading shorthand. For instance, #1 on their list of bad terms:

(1) A gene for. The news media is awash in reports of identifying “genes for” a myriad of phenotypes, including personality traits, mental illnesses, homosexuality, and political attitudes (Sapolsky, 1997). For example, in 2010, The Telegraph (2010) trumpeted the headline, “‘Liberal gene’ discovered by scientists.” Nevertheless, because genes code for proteins, there are no “genes for” phenotypes per se, including behavioral phenotypes (Falk, 2014). Moreover, genome-wide association studies of major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggest that there are probably few or no genes of major effect (Kendler, 2005). In this respect, these disorders are unlike single-gene medical disorders, such as Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. The same conclusion probably holds for all personality traits (De Moor et al., 2012).

Not surprisingly, early claims that the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is a “warrior gene” (McDermott et al., 2009) have not withstood scrutiny. This polymorphism appears to be only modestly associated with risk for aggression, and it has been reported to be associated with conditions that are not tied to a markedly heightened risk of aggression, such as major depression, panic disorder, and autism spectrum disorder (Buckholtz and Meyer-Lindenberg, 2013; Ficks and Waldman, 2014). The evidence for a “God gene,” which supposedly predisposes people to mystical or spiritual experiences, is arguably even less impressive (Shermer, 2015) and no more compelling than that for a “God spot” in the brain (see “God spot”). Incidentally, the term “gene” should not be confused with the term “allele”; genes are stretches of DNA that code for a given morphological or behavioral characteristic, whereas alleles are differing versions of a specific polymorphism in a gene (Pashley, 1994).

Exactly. It also cites Sapolsky’s article (pdf), which is very good. Here are some other terms that leapt out at me as ongoing peeves.

(4) Brain region X lights up. Many authors in the popular and academic literatures use such phrases as “brain area X lit up following manipulation Y” (e.g., Morin, 2011). This phrase is unfortunate for several reasons. First, the bright red and orange colors seen on functional brain imaging scans are superimposed by researchers to reflect regions of higher brain activation. Nevertheless, they may engender a perception of “illumination” in viewers. Second, the activations represented by these colors do not reflect neural activity per se; they reflect oxygen uptake by neurons and are at best indirect proxies of brain activity. Even then, this linkage may sometimes be unclear or perhaps absent (Ekstrom, 2010). Third, in almost all cases, the activations observed on brain scans are the products of subtraction of one experimental condition from another. Hence, they typically do not reflect the raw levels of neural activation in response to an experimental manipulation. For this reason, referring to a brain region that displays little or no activation in response to an experimental manipulation as a “dead zone” (e.g., Lamont, 2008) is similarly misleading. Fourth, depending on the neurotransmitters released and the brain areas in which they are released, the regions that are “activated” in a brain scan may actually be being inhibited rather than excited (Satel and Lilienfeld, 2013). Hence, from a functional perspective, these areas may be being “lit down” rather than “lit up.”

Once upon a time, when I was a lowly coder writing imaging software, I contributed to a project that studied brain activity. There’s a lot of processing going on there: we’re dealing with inherently noisy material, and what’s measured isn’t absolute levels of neuronal activity, but changes in respiration. I sometimes think the researchers are so far removed from the analysis that they just punch a button on a big machine and get a fancy colored image out of it, and they’re done thinking.

(16) Love molecule. Over 6000 websites have dubbed the hormone oxytocin the “love molecule” (e.g., Morse, 2011). Others have named it the “trust molecule” (Dvorsky, 2012), “cuddle hormone” (Griffiths, 2014), or “moral molecule” (Zak, 2013). Nevertheless, data derived from controlled studies imply that all of these appellations are woefully simplistic (Wong, 2012; Jarrett, 2015; Shen, 2015). Most evidence suggests that oxytocin renders individuals more sensitive to social information (Stix, 2014), both positive and negative. For example, although intranasal oxytocin seems to increase within-group trust, it may also increase out-group mistrust (Bethlehem et al., 2014). In addition, among individuals with high levels of trait aggressiveness, oxytocin boosts propensities toward intimate partner violence following provocation (DeWall et al., 2014). Comparable phrases applied to other neural messengers, such as the term “pleasure molecule” as a moniker for dopamine, are equally misleading (see Landau et al., 2008; Kringelbach and Berridge, 2010, for discussions).

Like trying to reduce behaviors to single genes, there’s also a tendency to assign simple consequences to single molecules with complex effects. It’s often a case of “My study measures one parameter X, therefore this molecule affects parameter X, period.”

This next one is familiar…

(45) Scientific proof. The concepts of “proof” and “confirmation” are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting (McComas, 1996). Hence, it is understandable why Popper (1959) preferred the term “corroboration” to “confirmation,” as all theories can in principle be overturned by new evidence. Nor is the evidence for scientific theories dichotomous; theories virtually always vary in their degree of corroboration. As a consequence, no theory in science, including psychological science, should be regarded as strictly proven. Proofs should be confined to the pages of mathematics textbooks and journals (Kanazawa, 2008).

I agree…but what’s that? Citing Satoshi Kanazawa? I had to look. It’s his usual terrible crap, evidence free and praising Lynn and Rushton, proposing that general intelligence is modulated by the average temperature of a region, and it doesn’t say anything about proof or mathematics textbooks or anything relevant. So in addition to agreeing that there are a lot of abused terms, I think you should also be careful about what you cite, and just throwing in the name of someone who has written a paper, no matter how tangential, should be avoided.

Hey, just generally, Psychology, could you just not publish those known bad actors like Kanazawa?


  1. rpjohnston says

    I’m a bit confused by #1.

    genes code for proteins, there are no “genes for” phenotypes per se, including behavioral phenotypes…genes are stretches of DNA that code for a given morphological or behavioral characteristic

    My understanding of biology is only about highschool level, but aren’t phenotypes basically morphological or behavioral characteristics? It seems to contradict itself…

  2. says

    For point 26: The authors say this:

    (26) Steep learning curve. Scores of authors use the phrase “steep learning curve” or “sharp learning curve” in reference to a skill that is difficult to master. For example, when referring to the difficulty of learning a complex surgical procedure (endoscopic pituitary surgery), one author team contended that it “requires a steep learning curve” (Koc et al., 2006, p. 299). 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 (Hopper et al., 2007).

    But the authors assume that skill level is plotted on the y axis and time on x axis. But a skill difficult to acquire if plotted with skill on x axis and time on the y axis, would indeed have a steep curve. Are the authors right in discouraging the use of the expression “Steep learning curve”? or am I missing something?

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    (32) Denial.
    Denial, a psychodynamic defense mechanism popularized by Freud (1937), is an ostensibly unconscious refusal to acknowledge obvious facts of reality, such as the death of a loved one in an automobile accident (Vaillant, 1977). Nevertheless, thanks largely to the popular psychology industry, this term has been widely misappropriated to refer to the tendency of individuals with a psychological condition, such as alcohol use disorder (formerly called alcoholism), to minimize the extent of their pathology (e.g., Wing, 1995).

    note they carefully avoided addressing the “popular” use of the term. Such as “climate change deniers”, “{etc.} deniers”. I see, they are talking to psychologists writing papers for journal publications, ahhhh. so I am in error when I so easily rephrase that final sentence of theirs into, … refer to the tendency of individuals with a psychopathic condition, such as {oil, nra, antiLGBTQ, etc etc etc}, to minimize the extent of their addiction (Koch fueled).
    I see that goes too too too far out. my bad. The “deniers” generally, whatever they deny, just set me off. apologies for venting

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re “learning curve” misuse:
    Whenever I see that misuse, I always rack it up to confabulating “work” into the “learning” axis. So that a steep learning curve implies requiring lots of work to “climb the curve”, such as walking up a steep hill versus a shallow hill. The steep hill is hard to walk up, while the shallow hill is easy to walk up. So a steep curve is difficult while the shallow curve is easy. Visualizing a curve into metaphor rarely works out well, as one gets wrapped up in extrapolation from the metaphor instead of from the source the metaphor is trying to ease visualization.
    thus, I prefer to rephrase “steep learning curve” into “quick learning curve”. emphasize the rate of ascent, rather than the height of the ascent.

  5. naturalcynic says

    re steep learning curve:
    Parsing the term, it refers to the speed at which learning occurs. If the learning occurs rapidly and time is the x axis and skill or understanding is the y axis, then a rapid rate of ascent means that the attribute being measured quickly. As it is unfortunately used, steep learning curve can be ambiguous and can is the inverse of what the words mean, and therefore should be banished as imprecise. Slithey has the right idea with “quick learning curve” as opposed to “slow learning curve”.

    Has anyone seen a “shallow learning curve”?

  6. frugaltoque says

    In regards to the correct axes to use when plotting a learning curve, I suggest we have a bi-weekly meeting on the subject.

  7. ragdish says

    Very good article. Although many terms are ambiguous or inaccurate, some are so entrenched in our vernacular. For example, “tricyclic antidepressants” are no longer used for the most part in treating major depression. In fact, they are used more for the treatment of chronic pain. It would be equally silly to call those drugs “pain killers”. Indeed, it would be more accurate to instead call the medications CNMs (catecholamine neurotransmitter modifiers) which can be used to treat mood and pain disorders. The same could be applied to the SSRI “antidepressants”. Yet given that the terms are so entrenched, I am doubtful that they will disappear.

  8. Rich Woods says

    #7 ragdish

    I’m pretty sure that “tricyclic antidepressants” is a term which has never been entrenched in my vernacular. In all fairness, though, I accept that I might be within the minority…

  9. frankb says

    In the blood bank laboratory we may talk about genotypes but we are almost exclusively dealing with phenotypes. Reference labs only recently gained access to genotyping tests which are very handy when dealing with patients who are on long term red blood cell support. But genotype results do not guarantee what we will find when we phenotype the patient nor guarantee that a unit of blood that matches the genotype will be compatible with the patient. There are just too many genes influencing events.

  10. =8)-DX says

    “intranasal oxytocin” Ah, time to write an article about “the nose-loving gene”!

  11. Igneous Rick says

    “Incidentally, the term “gene” should not be confused with the term “allele”; genes are stretches of DNA that code for a given morphological or behavioral characteristic, whereas alleles are differing versions of a specific polymorphism in a gene.”

    For this reason, “genetic disorder” is often misleading. I prefer “allele ill.”

  12. stevenjohnson2 says

    The first comment on “gene for” is pretty good. Still, perhaps it could be even better if it added that it is not even clear in what sense some of the alleged phenotypic traits should understood as a separate trait. Many behavioral traits, such as “personality,” are hard to identify. But the genetics of other behavioral traits, such as sleep patterns or appetites, despite easy identifiability, are never studied, or at least never popularized.

    The comment on “reductionism” seems to have an unfortunate ambiguity in contrasting constitutive and eliminative reductionism. It seems that the latter attempts to “explain away” various strongly held conceptions of the mind/soul. I strongly suspect that one person’s “constitution” is another’s “explaining away.”

    The comment on scientific proof though I must disagree with, at least insofar as it intersects with popular views. There are millions of people who reject such provisional theories as evolution precisely because they agree there is no such thing as scientific proof. The confusion lies in the notion of “proof” as a demonstration the conclusion is logically necessary, i.e., an infallible deduction from premises. It has been customary for decades to agree with them that science is not capable of proof. I don’t think it’s been working well. Denying that you can legitimately say it has been scientifically proven the earth is a sphere is is not helpful to anyone. Except perhaps those who want to say such offensive things as, “There is no magic.”

  13. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @13:
    I agree the discussion about use/misuse of “proof” depends on details. I concur, there could well be distinctions between scientific proof and logical proof, mathematical proof, and other kinds. Where proof is a word that needs to be categorized to be meaningful. E.G. mathematical proof is one that is absolute, no ‘ifs’, ‘ands’, or ‘buts’ can be included. While scientific proof is a little more “grey”; where those qualifiers are not only accepted but actually necessary. Scientific proof somewhat requires a Threshold, such as …ugh…{first example that springs to mind –> }… climate change is *proved*, with 93% acceptance by climate scientists.
    {wiggle} There’s also the use of “proof” as a verb rather than noun. as in “proof of toxicity is morbidity”, etc.{/wiggle}
    Even so. I agree that to ensure the distinction is conveyed in every paper, the exact version of
    proof being included therein, is too onerous. Better to avoid the use of the phrase entirely. Simply make one’s case, presenting the evidence and state the conclusion one achieved. Finalizing with the assertion, “PROVEN”, can be somewhat suspicious (for the wrong reasons. {lookin at you ad hominem fallacy} ).

  14. stevenjohnson2 says

    @13 was supposed to finish “Except perhaps to refute those who want to say such offensive things as, ‘There is no magic.'”
    Can’t type, can’t proof read.

  15. says

    I saved this article.

    One interesting aspect to this is the division between professional misuse of jargon and terminology and public misuse of jargon and terminology. ( I think this gets at slithey tove’s #4).

    It’s not “misuse” per se, but I would get rid of the term “habit reversal” in “habit reversal therapy”. Things are not being “reversed” as much as they are being “overwritten” or connected to new behaviors.

    I also think that the word “inheritance” needs more careful use now (at the minimum) that we have examples of non-genetic inheritance. “Inheritance” is not synonymous with “genetic” and many people act as if this is so, especially in the popular culture.

    Re: “steep learning curve”
    I think that “efficient learning” is a better thing to compare it to than “speed”. Speed is often a goal, but depth (internalization) can also be a goal and I would gamble that speed has a trade off with efficiency.


    Has anyone seen a “shallow learning curve”?

    “Steep” and “shallow” are relative in a lot of ways. Some people will have a natural aptitude with certain kinds of information because there are different kinds of “learners”. So someone who is has an implicit advantage would experience a “shallower learning curve”.

    Really basic information (and probably more advanced aspects) about something new to a person who knows a related subject will also probably count as a “shallower learning curve”. (Think learning cellular biology and you already know molecular biology, or knowing cellular biology and learning neruobiology).

  16. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    Tangential listicle-related point:

    The 8 “Sponsored Links from Around the Web” that I am currently looking at on this page are:

    – “10 Most beautiful female armed forces” (which doesn’t even make sense; I doubt there are 10 female-only armed forces on the planet, let alone enough to pick a top ten)
    – “10 World’s [sic] Most Beautiful and sexy nationalities”
    – “10 African countries with the most beautiful women”
    – “Top 10 countries with the most beautiful women in the world”
    – “10 most evil women in history”
    – “10 money mistakes successful people don’t make”
    – “1 fruit that “destroys” diabetes” (at least they had the decency to put scare quotes around “destroyed”)
    – “Top 10 world’s [sic] most beautiful women in 2015”

    I am spotting a theme, and it’s not just the misuse of apostrophes.