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52 Psychology Terms You Keep Using Wrong

Everyone likes to sound smart when talking about psychology—but do you really know what those terms mean that you're tossing around? Here's a professional guide.

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Psychology termsPhoto: Shutterstock

The research

Psychology professors from several major universities across the United States—and one from Australia—published a study consisting of 50 pairings of psychology terms that are commonly confused not only in popular writing and media but also in academic writing. “Having taught undergraduate psychology at the University of Arizona for 22 years, I have seen thousands of students struggle to differentiate many of these terms,” says Victor Shamas, PhD, who wasn’t involved in this particular study. These are the terms that you are likely to run across most frequently, and how professionals distinguish between them.

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Sensation vs. perceptionPhoto: Shutterstock

Sensation vs. perception

These two aren’t synonyms. Sensation, as its root (sense) implies, involves using one or more of the five senses to draw raw data from the environment. By contrast, perception involves the interpretation of data. Thus, it is actually incorrect to note that you “sense” you’re being followed. In fact, you sense shadows in your peripheral vision, but drawing the conclusion that you’re being followed requires perception. Of course, not all perception is rational.

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Conformity vs. obediencePhoto: Shutterstock

Conformity vs. obedience

Both of these terms refer to influences that motivate behaviour—the difference is the source of that influence. Conformity refers to the influence that comes from peers. Obedience is top down—a parent, teacher, or other authority figure directs your behaviour.

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Prejudice vs. discriminationPhoto: Shutterstock

Prejudice vs. discrimination

Prejudice refers to a belief or opinions someone holds in his or her mind; discrimination is behaviour—the acting out of prejudice. Although you may never speak your prejudices aloud, your discrimination reveals your prejudices via action.

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Race vs. ethnicityPhoto: Shutterstock

Race vs. ethnicity

Race has traditionally been defined in terms of biological differences, although increasingly, experts in the social and biological sciences argue that it is a biologically meaningless term. Ethnicity may be defined by racial as well as cultural, linguistic, national and religious influences.

Here are three ways to live without prejudice.

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Negative reinforcement vs. punishmentPhoto: Shutterstock

Negative reinforcement vs. punishment

Punishment is relatively clear to every parent and child, teacher and student, or even boss and employee: If you fail to accomplish a task—clean your room, turn in your homework, or make a deadline—you face consequences, such as being grounded, serving detention, or working over the weekend. Negative reinforcement is completely different—a classic example is remembering the time you got sunburned at the beach, and using that memory to help you remember to apply sunscreen whenever you head outdoors. Negative reinforcement, the researchers note, “increases the likelihood of a previous behaviour,” while punishment “decreases the likelihood of a previous behaviour.”

That said, negative reinforcement doesn’t necessarily shape behaviour intentionally. For example, if you have a headache (negative stimulus) and you take an aspirin, you learn by way of negative reinforcement to take aspirin to relieve headache pain.

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Anxiety vs. fearPhoto: Shutterstock

Anxiety vs. fear

This difference is a little easier to grasp: You fear something real—an actual threat. You have anxiety about something that may or may not happen. While fear will diminish immediately after the threat dissipates, anxiety can persist.

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Stressor vs. stressPhoto: Shutterstock

Stressor vs. stress

Stressor refers to an event that causes stress. Stress, by contrast, is what the person feels in response to a stressor. Here’s how Denise Dixon, PhD, a licensed psychologist in New York, puts it:

  • Stressors are external. Stressors come from the outside.
  • Stress is internal. It is one’s subjective experience.

Discover the scary things that happen to your brain when you’re stressed.

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Obsession vs. compulsionPhoto: Shutterstock

Obsession vs. compulsion

People often confuse these terms—or at least use them interchangeably—thanks to the designation obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In the study of psychological terms, the authors define obsession as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are … intrusive or unwanted.” Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or thoughts that an individual feels driven to do in response to an obsession—or according to rules the person has created for him- or herself.

The bottom line is that obsessions refer only to thoughts, whereas compulsions may refer to behaviours or thoughts.

Find out the clear signs you may be suffering from OCD.

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Shame vs. guiltPhoto: Shutterstock

Shame vs. guilt

Everyone seems to agree that shame and guilt are not the same. What no one can seem to agree on is how they differ. According to the study authors, “Most research suggests that shame is a global negative evaluation of the self in the wake of behaviour,” whereas “guilt is a specific negative evaluation of the behaviour, itself.” It’s that feeling of knowing you did a bad thing, and you feel bad about it.

As Pepperdine University professor Steven Sultanoff, PhD, puts it, with shame, you think, “I did something bad, which makes me a bad person,” but with guilt, you think, “I did something bad, but I’m still a good person.”

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Envy vs. jealousyPhoto: Shutterstock

Envy vs. jealousy

Most people use these words interchangeably. However, the study authors advise that if you want to use them as psychological concepts, then only use envy when you’re talking about one other person. For example, “I envy that you’re going on vacation next week.” Jealousy, by contrast, involves three or more people. For example, “I’m jealous of people who get to travel.”

New York licensed clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Anthony P. DeMaria, PhD, concurs, defining envy as a “two-person” phenomenon whereby we desire something someone else has (“I envy your promotion”), and jealousy as a phenomenon that inherently involves more than two people (“I’m jealous that you’ve been spending all your time with that other person, rather than me”).

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