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4 Psychological Ideas Too Many People Misunderstand

Thinking critically about psychological terminology and understanding.

Key points

  • There’s much more to narcissism than self-preservation, strategizing, and selfishness.
  • Just because someone disagrees with us does not mean that they are "gaslighting" us.
  • To learn about specific psychology-based topics, we should consult credible sources, not social media.

When I was a post-grad student, I used to hate it when people asked me what I did, because when I responded, "psychology," I’d get the same response over and over: "Uh oh, better watch out for this one analysing me" or "Can you guess what I’m thinking?" After a while, I amended my answer to "cognitive science" or "research" just to avoid such annoying exchanges. That’s the problem with popular or "pop" psychology: Through it, people think they know what psychology is all about (e.g., consider the Dunning-Kruger effect in context); however, it’s only once you take a good few classes in psychology (depending on which ones) that you understand that it’s nothing at all like what the larger population might think. Pop psychology often takes established concepts from psychology and either simplifies them to the point that they’re no longer recognisable in the context of their actual meaning—or just full-on bastardises them. Following are a handful of terms that have gained recognition—or infamy, depending on how you look at it—over the past few years in the realm of pop psychology.


Are you a narcissist? Take this quiz to find out! or, 9 Tell-tale Signs that You’re Dating a Narcissist—links to such quizzes and articles are not uncommon. It seems that pop culture wants you to believe that everyone is a narcissist; consistent with pop psychology’s fixation with narcissism, they probably are. Think about how lifeguards protect their bodies as their primary focus when off saving someone else’s life. Does their potential sacrifice of the person they try to save make them a narcissist? No! If their well-being is not ensured, then no one gets saved. Self-preservation is important—and that includes looking after one’s own self-interests! If a parent doesn’t look after their own well-being, who will take care of their kids?

In many cases, it’s natural (and healthy) to value your own needs and wants above and beyond that of others: You need to priortise yourself sometimes. Of course, we see this more in relation to people we’re not particularly close to, but it happens within families as well. Did Dad take the last cookie? Yeah? Well, maybe he’s a bit selfish. That doesn’t make him a narcissist. Does your spouse sometimes manipulate your feelings? It’s not a nice trait, but that doesn’t make them a narcissist either. There’s much more to narcissism than self-preservation, strategizing, and selfishness. Pop psychology would have you believe that pretty much anyone you don’t like or has slighted you in some way might be a narcissist, but if you really want to learn what a narcissist is, check out the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).


Gaslighting isn’t even really a psychological term; it doesn’t appear anywhere in the DSM-5. It comes from a 1938 play, "Gas Light," which inspired the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight. The term got famous after a few instances of use by political commentators and reinforced by "therapists" on social media. If we were to think of it from a genuinely psychological perspective, perhaps the most accurate description would be as coercive control in an emotionally abusive relationship. Coercion is the key word here. Unfortunately, pop psychology has made the term imply that when someone disagrees with you and tries to change your mind, what they’re doing is nefariously coercing you into an alternative perspective. The reality is that they probably think you’re wrong and are trying to debate your perspective. This is the basis of argumentation and argumentation is a good thing. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean that they are "gaslighting" you. Disagreement is not abuse.


Triggers are real; but they’re not as common as many would like to believe. Triggers refer to stimuli that elicit significant emotional responses (e.g., extreme distress or overwhelm) and or behavioural reactions (e.g., fight, flight, freeze). However, where I’m often significantly distressed by dumb things that people say, that’s not being triggered. For those who have experienced a genuine trauma—no, your local café running out of boba tea or pumpkin spice doesn’t count—triggers (e.g., places, sounds, smells, people) reignite the trauma and elicit the aforementioned responses. With that, pop psychology implies that insult, offense, and displeasure, in general, can be a trigger; in some cases, even a trauma. Sure, these things can be annoying, but to call them "triggering" disservices and, arguably, belittles the genuine experiences of those who have experienced trauma.


I remember taking a class during my undergrad in the early 2000s on "abnormal psychology." I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t fly in many settings today. Abnormal implies that something is "not normal" and, given our pop culture’s penchant for normalising pretty much everything, I can understand why I have more recently taught classes labeled "Mental Health and Mental Illness." Where I understand the implications such wording may have on individuals with disorders that fall into the "abnormal" category, we must also understand the true intention of this labeling as opposed to the negative connotations it may have as a result of pop culture. By definition, we should understand that words like "normal" refer to cases of the majority, what is typical and what is statistically likely. If the majority of the population behaves in certain ways, then it is "normal." It conforms with expectations. That may offend some people, but that’s my point: some people. "Some" might mean the minority; and we are all in the minority in some cases, it just depends on the context.

This is not to say that classes likes "abnormal psychology" shouldn’t be renamed. Indeed, the proportions of disorders/illnesses that fall into some of these categories are indeed large enough to warrant some degree of "normality" (e.g., consider the percentage of people who have lived with depression for at least some part of their life). In this context, "normalising" is useful—through normalising depression, people become more aware of it and may be better able to support someone living with it. On the other hand, pop psychology’s way of normalising certain issues can disservice people living with them, as discussed above regarding trauma. If someone has a mental/physical health issue, what they need is help/support, not someone telling them how "normal" it is and how they should just go on living their "best life." Moreover, I think time will tell with respect to the potential negative impact of people diagnosing themselves (and others) with whatever disorder/illness is the new trend because of such "normalisation." Simply put, this can’t be good for people who genuinely need services and support. We don’t need to normalise everything, nor should we.

Concluding Thoughts

Pop psychology exaggerates real psychological phenomena to such an extent that what is referred to in the "zeitgeist" only vaguely resembles what it really means. Terms like "narcissist," "gaslighting," "normalisation," and "trigger" represent only the tip of the iceberg. If you are genuinely interested in specific psychology-based topics, learn about them from credible sources, not social media.

Facebook image: Jose Calsina/Shutterstock

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