50 Science Terms That May Be Confusing

Should a disobedient child be punished or should you try negative reinforcement? Is your shy new colleague asocial or antisocial? Which is worse: a discriminatory one or a prejudiced boss?

These are three examples of psychological terms, which in fact refer to different concepts that are commonly assumed similar, if not identical. The confusion extends from science writing and television shows to textbooks and even scholarly studies.

Open-access journal ‘Frontiers in Education’ define 50 such “term pairs” related to psychology in a newly published paper. The paper’s intention is to improve the psychological literacy of psychology students and the general public.

Other examples of frequently confused terms are:

  • Race versus ethnicity.
  • Serial killer versus mass murderer.
  • Envy versus jealousy.
  • Disease versus illness

A professor of psychology Scott O. Lilienfeld at Emory University, USA says words matter and science is no exception. Every science relies on specialised terminology to master the discipline’s core concepts, which must be correctly understood.

New students, as well as advanced students, psychology instructors, and science journalists, are all confused by many terms in psychology. These misunderstandings can impede the learning of other psychological ideas.

The paper, “A Compendium of Continually Confused Term Pairs in Psychology: 50 Differences That Make a Difference” follows an earlier list of 50 widely used psychological terms that should be avoided.

Below is a short explanation of the term pairs above:

  • Punishment involves the presentation of the stimulus and reduces the likelihood of a previous behaviour while negative reinforcement involves the withdrawal of the stimulus and increases the possibility of previous behaviour. Punishment is the way to go if you want to lower the likelihood of further disobedience. (Although most psychological research suggests punishment doesn’t work in the long-term but works well in the short-term.
  • Antisocial people perform actions against others, are irresponsible, frequently engaging in reckless, and at times illegal behaviours. Your new colleague is most likely asocial; whereas, asocial people chronically withdraw from others due to not being interested in people’s contact or shyness. Some individual may have difficulty breathing
  • Prejudice means premature judgement, which is usually a negative judgment of others because of their membership in one or more categories. Specifically, prejudice refers to a belief, discrimination to behavior. (e.g., African-American, obese, Jew, Republican). Discrimination refers to the act of treating others poorly as a function of their membership, but both are bad
  • Race is referred to being a class that is defined by biological differences such as Caucasian or African-American or white versus brown or black skin. Ethnicity includes race as well as cultural variables such as country of origin, customs, and preferred language and is a broader concept, such as German or Chinese-American.
  • Envy and jealousy are very frequently confused, and few people are aware they differ. The difference is simple. Jealousy involves three or more people while envy involves two people. Therefore, you are not jealous but envious that your friend is headed to Hawaii unless they are going with another friend.
  • A mass murderer kills many people in a single incident whereas a serial killer only kills multiple people in incidents separated by “cooling off” periods. Serial killers are also different from spree killers, with clear-cut cooling-off periods, not associated with their homicidal episodes.
  • According to most cultural anthropologists and sociologists, illness is the afflicted individual’s reactions to the disease while the disease is the specific pathology or malfunctioning of a body part.
[vc_row][vc_column][products columns=”4″ orderby=”rand” order=”ASC” ids=”306,861,9014,2314″][/vc_column][/vc_row] Other widely confused terms listed in the paper include:

  • “Conformity” versus “obedience.” Both terms differ in at least two ways but are forms of social influence. In obedience, the direction of social influence is “vertical” from one or more authority figures to an individual whereas, in conformity, the direction is “horizontal” from one or more peers to an individual. Additionally, in obedience, it is typically explicit whereas, in conformity, the influence is implicit.
  • “Sex” versus “gender.” Sex is reserved for biological differences and gender for social differences by the recent edition of the American Psychological Association’s journal. For instance, one should typically use gender, not sex when referring to men and women in the context of socially defined groups.
  • “Anxiety” versus “fear.” There is evidence that they differ both physiologically and psychologically, but many use these terms interchangeably. Fear is associated with the negative effect in the presence of an imminent and mostly unavoidable threat whereas anxiety is related to negative affect in the presence of an ambiguous and potentially avoidable threat. Fear tends to disappear or diminish whereas anxiety tends to persist even after the threat is gone.
  • Empathy” versus “sympathy.” In sympathy, the individual does not necessarily have the same emotional experience but typically experiences compassion or concern for the other person. In empathy, most authors define it as the capacity to appreciate or grasp the emotions of others.
  • “Repression” versus “suppression.” Repression is a defense mechanism in psychoanalytic lingo marked by the unconsciously motivated forgetting of unpleasant material whereas suppression is a defense mechanism marked by the conscious forgetting of this material.
  • “Shame” versus “guilt.” Most research suggests that guilt reflects a more specific negative evaluation of behaviour (“I did a bad thing”) whereas shame reflects a global negative evaluation of oneself following an unethical or a problematic behaviour (“I am bad”).
  • “Delusion” versus “hallucination.” These terms are occasionally confused in peer-reviewed literature as well as widely confused in popular culture. Hallucinations are a perceptual experience that happens in the absence of any sensory stimulation whereas delusions are false beliefs that are not disseminated by members of the individual’s culture or subculture.
  • “Obsession” versus “compulsion.” Obsessions are recurrent and persistent urges or images that are experienced as intrusive or unwanted according to the recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Whereas compulsions are mental acts or repetitive behaviours that an individual feels driven to perform based on the rules that must be applied or in response to an obsession.
  • “Schizophrenia” versus “multiple personality disorder.” In popular culture, these terms are often misused. Multiple personality disorder, now referred as dissociative identity disorder, the individual’s mind allegedly harbours two or more separate” alter-egos,” that is, personality or personalities states. Schizophrenia is characterised by a severe splitting of functions, such as emotion, cognition, and motivation, within a single person.
  • “Sign” versus “symptoms.” Clinicians and others can observe signs whereas symptoms are subjective and must be reported by patients.
  • “Transvestite” versus “transgender.” Transvestite is a person who dresses in clothes that are different from those traditionally worn by members of his or her biological sex whereas a transgendered person possesses a gender identity that is distinct from his or her biological sex.
  • “Incidence” versus “prevalence.” Incidence refers to the rate of emergence of new cases of individuals with a condition over a specified time interval while prevalence refers to the proportion of individuals in a population with a given condition.
  • “Risk factor” versus “cause.” A risk factor is associated with a heightened likelihood of developing the disorder and precedes the onset of the disorder. However, not all risk factors are causal risk factors. For example, attention dysfunction is statistically associated and often precedes the onset of schizophrenia, but it may not itself contribute to schizophrenia. Whereas, the death of a loved one appears to both precede and is causally related to risk for the onset of major depression.
  • “Persistent vegetative state” versus “coma.” People in a persistent vegetative state retain the sleep-wake cycle as well as specific reflexes and automatic responses such as grimacing, yawning, moaning, and opening eyes during feeding but they lack reasonable awareness of the self and environment. In response to stimulation, the person’s level of consciousness may also vary. People in a coma are unable to respond to external stimulation, such as sound or light; cannot be awakened, lack a regular sleep-wake cycle and do not respond to verbal commands. A PVS can last for years and cause permanent cognitive and functional disability whereas a coma usually lasts less than a month, after which the person emerges with either no or varying degrees of brain damage.
  • “Testing” versus “assessment.” Psychological testing is defined as the administration of self-report indices, intelligence tests, interviews and other measures to individuals. Psychological assessment is described as the integration and interpretation of test scores, always in conjunction with additional information to draw inferences regarding the individual’s mental status.

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