According to a 1992 bestseller, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. And I always thought I was from planet Earth! The book attempted to help men and women understand each other by explaining some fundamental differences between men’s and women’s psychology, and belongs to the expanding genre of self-help literature.
The growth of psychology, the academic study of the mind and behaviour, in the 20th century was felt far beyond the walls of academia. Its ideas were popularized and taken up by many writers and caring professionals, some with no background in the study of psychology. The vocabulary associated with some of these ideas has recently made its way into the Cambridge dictionary.
The technical vocabulary of psychology, like that of medicine, is highly specialized and complex. Many terms need to be defined very specifically in their technical uses; but because of the crossover from the academic subject into the popular domain, some words have acquired looser, non-technical meanings. This can lead to a certain amount of misunderstanding and misconception, which can have the effect of downplaying the seriousness of certain psychological conditions. This can be seen, for example, with the word depression. Depression is used by health professionals to refer to a specific mental condition that can be extremely debilitating, but in everyday English, as the dictionary entry shows, it is generally used to mean something not very different from “sadness”. To make sure that the technical sense is understood, it is sometimes necessary to refer to it as clinical depression.
The language of clinical psychology is also reaching a wider audience thanks to campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues. Thanks to TV and the internet, the general public is increasingly aware of conditions such as bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, Munchausen’s syndrome, and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Even the language of mental health professionals is making an impact on everyday language. The plural use of behaviour, as in These behaviours are increasingly common in children, was previously confined to scientific writing, but can now often be heard in more general contexts. Other terms that have made the leap from technical language into, if not everyday conversation, at least the type of language you are likely to hear in popularizing TV documentaries and workplace presentations, include codependent, dysfunctional, and narcissistic.
So it’s not surprising to see the language of psychology being adopted by writers and publishers of self-help literature, where it often degenerates into psychobabble, or the meaningless use of psychological terms, especially in a way that is confusing or designed to impress. A whole range of complexes and syndromes have been invented by non-psychologists, including tall poppy syndrome, a dislike of people who are successful, and superiority complex, a feeling of being better than other people (based on the already existing inferiority complex). Social media and the internet are populated with earnest people who are happy to talk about left-brain/right-brain differences, emotional intelligence, and their inner child, as if they were scientific facts.
All harmless stuff, maybe, but we should be aware that, by using psychological language in this loose way, we risk letting down those suffering from serious psychological conditions, who sometimes struggle to have their conditions understood.