Sociology and Psych Terms You’re (Mis)Using Every Day


Sep 28, 2017


Should you punish a disobedient child, or try negative reinforcement? Is your shy, new colleague antisocial or asocial? Do you feel empathy or sympathy for him at office parties? Do you ask your neighbour about the sex or gender of her new baby?

These are just three examples of psychological and sociological terms that most people use interchangeably, but which in fact refer to very different concepts. The confusion extends from television shows and science writing to textbooks and news articles, and it’s keeping us from understanding ourselves and our fellow humans.

“Words matter, and science is no exception,” says Scott O. Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University, USA, and one of the paper’s authors. “In psychology, many terms are confused not only by new students but also by advanced students, psychology instructors, and science journalists. These misunderstandings can impede the learning of other psychological ideas.”

Up your ability to talk about your own and others’ experiences and actions more accurately and sensitively by learning the difference between the following mixed-up words. (You can check out the full list here.) Let’s start with on particularly relevant to parents:

Negative reinforcement vs. punishment

Negative reinforcement involves the withdrawal of a stimulus and increases the likelihood of a previous behavior, while punishment involves the presentation of a stimulus and decreases the likelihood of a previous behavior. So if you want to lower the likelihood of further disobedience, punishment is the way to go (although most psychological research suggests that punishment works well in the short-term, but not in the long-term).

Asocial vs. antisocial

Your new colleague is most likely asocial. Antisocial people perform actions against others, frequently engaging in reckless, irresponsible, and at times illegal behaviors. In contrast, asocial people chronically withdraw from others due to shyness or not being interested in interpersonal contact.

Prejudice vs. discrimination

Prejudice refers to a belief, discrimination to a behavior. Specifically, prejudice means arriving at a premature – and usually negative – judgment of others based on their membership in one or more categories (e.g., African-American, Jew, obese, Republican), whereas discrimination refers to the act of treating others poorly as a function of this membership. While both are bad, you’d probably prefer that your boss be prejudiced.

Race vs. ethnicity

Race refers to a class, such as Caucasian or African-American, that is defined by biological differences such as white versus brown or black skin. Ethnicity is a broader concept, such as German or Chinese-American, that includes race as well as cultural variables such as country of origin, customs, and preferred language.

Envy vs. jealousy

Envy and jealousy are so frequently confused (e.g., “I’m jealous that you’re going to Hawaii next week!”) that few people are aware they differ. Yet the distinction is typically simple: Envy involves two people, whereas jealousy involves three or more people. So you are envious, not jealous, that your friend is headed to Hawaii — unless they are going with another friend as well.

Conformity vs. obedience

Both terms refer to forms of social influence but differ in at least two ways. In conformity, the direction of social influence is “horizontal” from one or more peers to an individual, whereas in obedience the direction is “vertical” from one or more authority figures to an individual. Moreover, in conformity, the influence is typically implicit (unspoken), whereas in obedience, it is typically explicit.

Sex vs. gender

The latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s style manual reserves “sex” for biological differences and “gender” for social differences. For example, when referring to men and women in the context of socially defined groups, one should typically use gender, not sex.

Anxiety vs. fear

Although many use these terms interchangeably, there is evidence that they differ both psychologically and physiologically. Anxiety is associated with negative affect in the presence of an ambiguous and potentially avoidable threat, whereas fear is associated with negative affect in the presence of an imminent and largely unavoidable threat. Even after the threat is gone, anxiety tends to persist whereas fear tends to diminish or disappear.

Empathy vs. sympathy

Most authors define empathy as the capacity to appreciate or grasp the emotions of others. In sympathy, the individual typically experiences concern or compassion for the other person but does not necessarily have the same emotional experience.

Repression vs. suppression

In psychoanalytic lingo, repression is a defense mechanism marked by the unconscious motivated forgetting of unpleasant material. In contrast, suppression is a defense mechanism marked by the conscious forgetting of this material.

Shame vs. guilt

Most research suggests that shame reflects a global negative evaluation of oneself following a problematic or unethical behavior (“I am bad”), whereas guilt reflects a more specific negative evaluation of this behavior (“I did a bad thing”).

Delusion vs. hallucination

These terms are widely confused in popular culture and occasionally in peer-reviewed literature as well. Delusions are fixed false beliefs that are not widely shared by members of the individual’s culture or subculture, whereas hallucinations are perceptual experiences that occur in the absence of any sensory stimulation.

Obsession vs. compulsion

According to the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), obsessions are “recurrent and persistent thoughts urges or images that are experienced as intrusive or unwanted” whereas compulsions are “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly”.

Schizophrenia vs. multiple personality disorder

These terms are very often misused in popular culture, following the incorrect formula of “multiple personality = split personality = schizophrenia.” Schizophrenia is characterized by a severe splitting of functions, such as cognition, emotion, and motivation, within a single person. In multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder, the individual’s mind ostensibly harbors two or more distinct “alters,” that is, personalities or “personality states.”

Transgender vs. transvestite

A transgendered person possesses a gender identity that differs from his or her biological sex, while a transvestite is someone who dresses in clothing that differs from that traditionally worn by members of his or her biological sex.

Risk factor vs. cause

A risk factor is a variable that (a) precedes the onset of a disorder and (b) is associated with a heightened likelihood of developing this disorder. Nevertheless, not all risk factors are causal risk factors. For example, although attentional dysfunction often precedes the onset of schizophrenia and is statistically associated with this condition, it may not itself contribute to schizophrenia. In contrast, the death of a loved one appears to both precede, and be causally related to risk for, the onset of major depression.

Testing vs. assessment

Psychological testing refers to administration of self-report indices, interviews, intelligence tests and other measures to individuals. Psychological assessment refers to the integration and interpretation of test scores, almost always in conjunction with other information (e.g., life history data, behavioral observations during testing) to draw inferences concerning the individual’s mental status.


Written By Lila Sahija

Lila reports on health and science news for The Swaddle. She has loved biology ever since she dissected her first frog in eighth grade, and now has a keen interest in examining human behavior. She also loves animals and takes at least one adventure a year through rural India. Oh, and she bakes a mean German coffee cake.


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