Confusing and misleading terms in psychology

I was reading a couple of articles with examples of terms in psychological research that are either confusing, ambiguous or misleading. The two articles are Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases (Lilienfeld et al. 2015) and 50 Differences That Make a Difference: A Compendium of Frequently Confused Term Pairs in Psychology (Lilienfeld et al. 2017).

While the two articles are written with an explicit focus on psychological research, I can recommend the articles for three reasons. First, the use of clear language is key to all aspects of scientific research. Even if you do not find the specific examples relevant (or disagree with some of the arguments), the articles can help you think about the clarity of the terms you apply in your own work.

Second, several of the examples are not domain-specific to psychology. A lot of the terms are related to research methods and statistics and can be considered great advice on how to communicate methods and statistics. For example, do not write “p = .000” but “p < .001”.

Third, psychological theories and explanations are used in a lot of social science research. For example, the first example on the list, “A gene for”, is also relevant for political science (see e.g. Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout by Fowler and Dawes 2008). Accordingly, due to the popularity of psychology in social science research more generally, the two articles are not only relevant for psychologists.

Here is the full list (100 examples in total, i.e. 50 examples in each article):

Inaccurate or misleading terms

  1. “A gene for”
  2. Antidepressant medication
  3. Autism epidemic
  4. Brain region X lights up
  5. Brainwashing
  6. Bystander apathy
  7. Chemical imbalance
  8. Family genetic studies
  9. Genetically determined
  10. God spot
  11. Gold standard
  12. Hard-wired
  13. Hypnotic trance
  14. Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X
  15. Lie detector test
  16. Love molecule
  17. Multiple personality disorder
  18. Neural signature
  19. No difference between groups
  20. Objective personality test
  21. Operational definition
  22. p = 0.000
  23. Psychiatric control group
  24. Reliable and valid
  25. Statistically reliable
  26. Steep learning curve
  27. The scientific method
  28. Truth serum
  29. Underlying biological dysfunction

Frequently misused terms

  1. Acting out
  2. Closure
  3. Denial
  4. Fetish
  5. Splitting

Ambiguous terms

  1. Comorbidity
  2. Interaction
  3. Medical model
  4. Reductionism


  1. Hierarchical stepwise regression
  2. Mind-body therapies
  3. Observable symptom
  4. Personality type
  5. Prevalence of trait X
  6. Principal components factor analysis
  7. Scientific proof


  1. Biological and environmental influences
  2. Empirical data
  3. Latent construct
  4. Mental telepathy
  5. Neurocognition

Confused term pairs: Sensation, perception, learning, and memory

  1. “Negative reinforcement” versus “punishment”
  2. “Renewal effect” versus “spontaneous recovery”
  3. “Sensation” versus “perception”
  4. “Working memory” versus “short-term memory”

Confused term pairs: Social and cultural bases of behavior

  1. “Conformity” versus “obedience”
  2. “Prejudice” versus “discrimination”
  3. “Race” versus “ethnicity”
  4. “Sex” versus “gender”

Confused term pairs: Personality psychology

  1. “Affect” versus “mood”
  2. “Anxiety” versus “fear”
  3. “Empathy” versus “sympathy”
  4. “Envy” versus “jealousy”
  5. “Repression” versus “suppression”
  6. “Shame” versus “guilt”
  7. “Subconscious” versus “unconscious”

Confused term pairs: Psychopathology

  1. “Antisocial” versus “asocial”
  2. “Catalepsy” versus “cataplexy”
  3. “Classification” versus “diagnosis”
  4. “Delusion” versus “hallucination”
  5. “Obsession” versus “compulsion”
  6. “Psychopathy” versus “sociopathy”
  7. “Psychosomatic” versus “somatoform”
  8. “Schizophrenia” versus “multiple personality disorder”
  9. “Serial killer” versus “mass murderer”
  10. “Symptom” versus “sign”
  11. “Tangentiality” versus “circumstantiality”
  12. “Transgender” versus “transvestite”

Confused term pairs: Research methodology and statistics

  1. “Cronbach’s alpha” versus “homogeneity”
  2. “Discriminant validity” versus “discriminative validity”
  3. “External validity” versus “ecological validity”
  4. “Face validity” versus “content validity”
  5. “Factor analysis” versus “principal components analysis”
  6. “Predictive validity” versus “concurrent validity”
  7. “Mediator” versus “moderator”
  8. “Prevalence” versus “incidence”
  9. “Risk factor” versus “cause”
  10. “Standard deviation” versus “standard error”
  11. “Stepwise regression” versus “hierarchical regression”

Confused term pairs: Miscellaneous

  1. “Clairvoyance” versus “precognition.”
  2. “Coma” versus “persistent vegetative state”
  3. “Culture-fair test” versus “culture-free” test
  4. “Delirium” versus “dementia”
  5. “Disease” versus “illness”
  6. “Flooding” versus “implosion”
  7. “Hypnagogic” versus “hypnopompic”
  8. “Insanity” versus “incompetence”
  9. “Relapse” versus “recurrence”
  10. “Stressor” versus “stress”
  11. “Study” versus “experiment”
  12. “Testing” versus “assessment”

Do consult the articles for descriptions of the respective terms.