Psychology Jargon Made Simple

Psychology's most confusing terms and how to keep them straight

Posted Feb 25, 2012

Don't you wish psychology jargon wasn't so confusing? How can you possibly keep straight all of concepts, terms, theories, and names? These simple memory aids will allow you to get through any testing situation or even intelligent conversation about psychology. Fair warning, I am not providing "official" definitions of terms, just quick and easy brief identification to help you understand how the memory cues will help you remember the official definitions.

Psychology of learning:

Classical conditioning vs. operant conditioning:

In classical conditioning, a reflexive, automatic behavior is associated with an originally neutral stimulus. For example, if you are at a "classical" music concert and accidentally hit your elbow on the seat, you will associate sound of the notes with your painful response.

In operant conditioning, a voluntary, complex skill is being acquired. To remember this term, think "operate." If you need surgery, you want your physician to be highly skilled and not performing automatic, reflexive emotional behaviors.

Positive reinforcement vs. negative reinforcement

Reinforcement is the process of strengthening ("reinforcing") a behavior; i.e. increasing its frequency. Keep this in mind when you try to remember the difference between these two concepts.

Positive reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior's occurrence (this is pretty straightforward).

Negative reinforcement ALSO increases the frequency of a behavior, but it's the behavior you want to encourage, not eliminate. The negative does not mean you're trying to reduce a behavior. In negative reinforcement, an aversive ("negative") stimulus is applied until the desired behavior increases in frequency.

Behavioral neuroscience

Anterograde amnesia vs. retrograde amnesia

Amnesia refers to loss of memory ("A"= without, "mne"= memory)

Anterograde refers to inability to learn new memories after the injury, so the way to remember this is to think of the "a" for "after."

Retrograde refers to forgetting what you learned before the injury so the way to remember this is to think of "retro" as referring to something in the past (such as the retro styles of 1980 clothing, for instance)

Parts of the nervous system

Autonomic nervous system: Controls regulatory functions within the body. Think "auto-matic."

Sympathetic nervous system: Prepares the body for response to emergencies. Think "sympathy" or emotion.

Parasympathetic nervous system: Involved in restorative functions, including digestion. Think "pear' for "para."

Parts of the subcortex

This is a very simplified way to remember the basic structures in the subcortex.

Medulla: Controls breathing and other vital functions needed to live. Without the medulla, you would be very "dull."

Cerebellum: Involved in balance. Think "bell" for "bal"-ance.

Pons: Involved in sleep. Think that before you go to sleep you may put "Ponds" cream on your hands or face.

Thalamus: A relay area for sensory information. Think "throw" for "relay."

Amygdala: Part of the limbic system involved in emotions, including anger. Think "Amy G. Dala" got angry.

Wernicke's area vs. Broca's area

These are the language areas of the brain.

Broca's area is involved in speech production. Think of the newscaster Tom Brokaw.

Wernicke's area is involved in speech comprehension. The way to remember this is that it's not Broca's area!

Rods and cones (receptor cells in the retina)

Cones: Involved in sensing color, so think "co" for "color."

Rods: Involved in detection within dim lighting conditions. Think that in the dark, someone with a "rod" (gun) might commit a crime.

Developmental Psychology

Assimilation vs, Accommodation

The Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, proposed that the individual's development of intelligence occurs through a process of "equilibrium" or balance between two basic processes.

Assimilation refers to imposing your own concepts ("schemas") onto new experiences.

Accommodation is the process through which you change in response to experiences.

To keep these straight, think "assimilation" = "same" ("S"), and "accommodation" = "change" ("C").

Presbyopia vs, Presbycusis

The aging process involves specific changes in the sensory structures of the eye and ear.

Presbyopia is the loss of the ability to focus the lens of the eye. Think "O" for the shape of the eye.

Presbycusis is the loss of the ability to hear high-pitched tones..Think "C" for the shape of the ear.

Personality psychology:

Five-Factor Model:

The five factors are Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Think "OCEAN," or "CANOE," or "CANOE on the OCEAN."

Cognitive Psychology

Representativeness vs. Availability Heuristic

Representativeness: You make an error in judgment based on how "representative" you think an instance is of its category. For instance, you may believe a person who is quiet and reserved is more likely to be a librarian than a salesperson when in reality, the odds are that the person is a salesperson (because this is a more common occupation than librarian).

Availability: You believe that certain events are more probable because they are "available" in memory. As an example, you judge that homicides are more frequent than suicides even though suicides are more frequent because you are more likely to hear about homicides in the news than about suicides.

Abnormal Psychology

Philia vs. phobia

Phobia: Refers to the fear of a situation. There are many forms of phobias, and the only way to keep them straight is to know some Greek. However, some phobias aren't so easy to figure out, including "Arachibutyrophobia," which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.

Philia: Refers to attraction to a situation or experience. As with phobias, attractions can be traced to their Greek roots.

History of Psychology

The two main perspectives in the history of psychology that continue to have an impact on contemporary approaches in the field are structuralism and functionalism. Each is associated with a different major historical figure.

Structuralism is the perspective that focuses on the structures of the mind. It is associated with Wilhelm Wundt, who founded the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879.

Functionalism is the perspective that focuses on the functions of the mind, specifically its ability to adapt to the challenges of the environment. It is associated with Harvard psychologist William James, who also established a laboratory in 1879 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

To keep the two perspectives and their main proponents straight, you can use this simple mnemonic  strategy.  "J" comes before "W," and "F" (from Functionalism) comes before "S" (from Structuralism).

Research Methods:

You'll need to use a little imagery to take advantage of this memory tip.

Independent variable: The variable that is manipulated is "independent" of other influences. Think of it as a strong person who sets the lead for others to follow.

Dependent variable: The variable that is observed, which "follows" the independent variable. Again, using imagery, imagine it tagging along after the independent variable.

Famous psychologists easily confused:

Social psychology:

Stanley Milgram- Conducted research on obedience to authority.  His results were pretty "grim."

Philip Zimbardo: Famous study was the Stanford Prison experiment.  The students were behind "bars."

Solomon Asch:  Conducted research on conformity. Think "con-form-i-"TREE", as Ash is a type of tree.

Personality psychologists:

Carl Jung: Studied archetypes, including unconscious, primitive-like instincts. The "Young" and the Restless.

Alfred Adler: Invented the term "inferiority complex." Think of "A." Getting less than an A is inferior.

Erik Erikson:  Promoted a life-span model of psychosocial development from childhood through later adulthood. Think "...son" as associated with children.

This about sums it up for now. If you have suggestions for additional memory tips, let me know and I will add them to the list!

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012