Sunday, January 4, 2015

Your Lingo is Bad, and You Should Feel Bad: Common Misuses of Psychological Terms

I haven't updated this in awhile (surprise), but for the second year in a row, I've resolved to post to this, my little corner of the Internet more frequently. The problem is that whenever I have an idea I want to write about, I'm usually not in a position to write it down. I lose a lot of ideas because I forget them when I have time to write later, or I just lose the motivation to write when I actually have the chance. I'm thinking about experimenting with writing motivation; my current theory is that I'm most motivated to write when I'm supposed to be doing something else. Maybe I'll try to trick myself somehow by manufacturing scenarios where I plan on doing something that isn't that important, then ditch those plans at the last minute in favor of writing a blog or working on another ongoing writing project.

Anyway.

I think a lot about topics in the field of psychology as they relate to everyday life. I posted about a book I read, The Art of Happiness in which a psychiatrist did a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama, compared them to neurological and psychological research findings, and discovered that those findings and at least some of the ancient teachings of the Buddha actually have a lot in common.

Lately I've been thinking about how psychological terms like "psychotic" and "antisocial" are misused in pop culture, which causes people to misuse them in everyday conversation.

Here's the thing: whenever someone witnesses someone else behaving erratically, it's common to say they're acting "psychotic". Both of those words are used by psychologists and psychiatrists to describe extreme mental states possibly caused by a disorder.

It doesn't bother me so much that people might be using the terms for the sake of hyperbole. It's when people use them wrong that irks me.




When people call someone a psychopath, often they're thinking this.




Or this.




While these two characters are written to portray psychopathy, they're extreme cases.

Here's a fun little game I like to call, "spot the psychopath." It's a pretty straightforward game; just guess which one is the psychopath out of everyone in the picture here.



Did you get it? Did you get it right? I bet you got it right. You're so smart.


Now try doing it for this picture.


Miserable psychopathic bastards.


Obviously you can't tell just from these pictures if, indeed, any of these people are actually psychopaths.

Being a psychopath isn't obvious. Just because someone reacts with very strong emotion to something that seems trivial- that's not psychopathic. Calling your ex a "psychopath" because they were bossy and high maintenance also isn't a sensible use of the word. If they consistently lied, stole, cheated and manipulated you, consistently expressed stilted, transparent, hollow emotional reactions, especially when trying to, say, apologize for something, then maybe, just maybe they have psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. Still, that doesn't mean they are psychopathic/sociopathic (which, by the way, are two different disorders).

These disorders are part of a sort of cluster of related diagnoses, including antisocial personality disorder (APD). The reason some people are clinically considered psychopaths or sociopaths is because of fundamental problems with their entire personality- how they think, how they plan, how they react to things and places and other people. The things they want and the things they can't stand. It's a very complicated issue made more difficult by a myriad of things, including this:



Psychopaths are really good at blending in.


A lot of times, people use the words "psychopath" and "psychotic" to describe the same things. In fact, being "psychotic" doesn't mean you're a violent, amoral killing machine. Being psychotic means not being able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. 

For example, hearing disembodied voices saying "kill your dog" over and over again is a psychotic experience. Psychosis can also take the form of a delusion, like being totally convinced that your dog can read your mind, and is very, very disappointed in you.



"I'm judging the shit out of you right now."


Lots of things can cause psychosis, from drugs to sleep deprivation to everyday stress, even in perfectly healthy people. I would argue that paranoia, which everyone experiences from time to time, is similar, if not literally psychotic in nature. Don't quote me on that, though.

Valve, a video game production company, made a video about a character with severe psychotic delusions and hallucinations that was as funny as it was incredibly dark.




Mercifully, there aren't many people with psychotic symptoms this severe. 

Did you see, though, how the Pyro character's delusions weren't causing him/her any distress? The reason this is still a disorder is because the misguided beliefs of the Pyro caused by psychosis caused him/her/them to behave in ways that did cause problems. These behaviors are called "maladaptive" behaviors, because they prevent the people who do them from successfully adapting to many situations one experiences in life. 

Obviously the Pyro isn't struggling to adapt to, uh...the Pyro's environment, but that's because the Pyro unfortunately has found a setting where sadistic murder allows the Pyro to thrive: mercenary work. 


Most people with psychotic symptoms don't find it so easy to lead a happy, successful life. Also most people who suffer from psychosis aren't THIS psychotic.


I'm not an expert really, I've only earned a Bachelor's degree in Psychology so far. I'm not licensed, so there's a lot I don't know, and it's possible I got one or two things wrong here. Yet I do know that terms like this are far more useful when used correctly.

There's a world of difference between Tyler Durden and Dexter, after all.