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Is the Word “Shrink” a Put Down or a Term of Endearment?

Headshrinker, problem shrinker, what does it mean?

As an Industrial-Organizational psychologist, I believe that I’m about as far away from being a “shrink” as you can get and still be a psychologist. Yet, I was recently referred to by a client organization as “our company’s shrink,” and I just saw a piece on “The Street” that advocated hiring a “shrink” (referring to an organizational psychologist) to fix your business.

Sometimes, when I tell a stranger I’m a psychologist, I’ll get the “Oh, a shrink” comment, and I cringe. But today I wondered if that’s a good or a bad thing, so I looked up the origin of the word and contemplated what it means for me, and for psychologists in general.

From what I can tell, the word shrink is a shortening of “headshrinker,” referring to Amazonian tribes who preserve and shrink the heads of their enemies – certainly not a very positive connection! So, on the dark side, there are connections to shamanism, magic, and spiritual rituals, but in a more positive light, it is also suggested that psychotherapists [the term was first used to describe psychiatrists and psychotherapists] who might “shrink” problems to make them more understandable.

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As I reflect back on the impact that the word (and idea) of a shrink has had on me, I recall a few episodes where potential business clients reacted negatively to the idea of hiring an organizational psychologist (as in, “we may have a few problems here in the company, but we certainly don’t need a shrink!”). On the other hand, I recall a CEO putting his arm around me and introducing me proudly [I think] as “our corporate shrink!”

I think the bottom line is this: There are enough negative connotations to the word, “shrink,” that make it a turn off to many psychologists, and it seems to be particularly inapplicable (and perhaps offensive) to psychologists who aren’t involved in psychotherapy, such as industrial-organizational psychologists. But as with many nicknames, it could actually be used as a way of making an informal connection – a sort of term of endearment.

Of course other professions have negative slang terms (physicians have been called “sawbones” or “leech” referring to rather ancient practices; lawyers are called “sharks” or “mouthpieces”), so creating professional nicknames seems to be common.

What are your thoughts? Is “shrink” a put down or a term of endearment?

 

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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