Using psychological terms accurately

Updated: 2011-08-04 10:39

By Patrick Mattimore (

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Several years ago China Daily published an account of a father who forced his son to kneel in front of an Internet Cafe in order to teach his son to stay away from cyber cafes and focus on studying. The reporter wrote that onlookers believed that this negative reinforcement was not a good method of teaching. But this was not negative reinforcement.

A more recent China Daily editorial proposed that countries use relation therapy to heal "diplomatic schizophrenia". But this loose use of schizophrenia distorts its true definition.

Both these examples of specific psychological terms, "schizophrenia," and "negative reinforcement" have come into common parlance but they are often misused and confused by the public.

Take a look at the following two paragraphs. The first paragraph is from a recent edition of the Washington Post and the second was published as part of an editorial last month in The New York Times.

"Some tea party groups are targeting Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) for supporting the debt ceiling compromise put forward by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But West, a conservative in a moderate district, isn't sweating it. 'One minute they're saying I'm their Tea Party hero, and three, four days later I'm a Tea Party defector; that kind of schizophrenia I'm not going to get involved in it,' he said on Laura Ingraham's show today."

"My son's intellectual growth is another matter. Pervasive negative reinforcement from teachers and a competitive atmosphere that demoralized underachievers chipped away at his self-confidence. A constant and towering amount of work pushed him to view all school tasks as daunting. I fear that instead of planting the seeds for a thirst for knowledge, the rigors of school may have discouraged the development of a probing mind."

In the first paragraph, Congressman West is using the term "schizophrenia" to refer to opposite characterizations of his political ideology by members of the Tea Party. That is a common misuse of the term. People frequently think of schizophrenia as meaning a split or divergent personality, too. In fact, there are different types of schizophrenia and a host of various characteristics but individuals with schizophrenia generally have impaired thinking, emotions, and behaviors. Their personalities are not split but disordered.

The problem with the term "schizophrenia" is that the root word “schizo” means split and "phrenic" translates as mind, hence the everyday usage of the phrase as referring to someone who acts erratically or the more generalized use of the term to refer to groups or people that act inconsistently.

In the paragraph from The Times, the writer complains that his son's self-confidence was undermined because of his teachers' "negative reinforcement." What the writer suggests is that the teachers did something which was bad ("negative") that produced ("reinforcement") a less confident condition in his son.

Negative reinforcement, however, is an action that strengthens a behavior by removing something bad. It is not the same as punishment which is used to decrease a behavior.

Think of it in math terms like addition by subtraction, so that we create a healthier person, for example, when we smoke less.

Here's a good example of negative reinforcement from the Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction in Arizona. Driving in heavy traffic is a negative condition for most of us. You leave home earlier than usual one morning, and don't run into heavy traffic. You leave home earlier again the next morning and again you avoid heavy traffic. Your behavior of leaving home earlier is strengthened by the consequence of avoiding heavy traffic.

Insisting upon definitional accuracy may seem trivial, but in an age when communication between individuals and nations is frequently distorted and breaks down, it's not a bad idea to try and get us all on the same page, psychologically speaking.

The author formerly taught Advanced Placement Psychology.