Psychobabble: Which Expressions Do You Love to Hate?

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Send me your favourite examples of psychobabble and I will publish them here on PsyBlog.
My first experience of ‘psychobabble’ was at school. Kids used to shout an abusive epithet across the playground and when some poor soul turned around to look they all cried in unison, “Complex!”, as in the Freudian term ‘Oedipus complex’.

As is usually the case with psychobabble it was a technical psychological term used out of context – not that I was sufficiently well-read (or stupid enough) to point that out at the time.

While this example is pretty lowbrow, psychobabble permeates all intellectual strata. Psychological discussions on the street, in print, on TV and online are filled with psychobabble, usually delivered with a straight face.

Sometimes respectable psychological terms escape from their cosy, sheltered academic homes and develop their ‘babble’ out in the wide world where they’re ravaged by the uncultured masses and left almost unrecognisable. Other times the ‘babble’ is born fully-formed of various gurus, cultists, celebrities, columnists and others.

Here are a few pieces of psychobabble I currently love to hate:

  • “Their brains lit up in the scanner.” Parts of the brain are said to ‘light up’ when we remember, lie, do our taxes and, probably, go to the toilet. Surely everyone knows this is just short-hand for increased blood-flow in a certain part of the brain? Do they hell.
  • “I’m alive so I must be addicted to breathing.” If you do something more than twice a week it’s an addiction: from sex, to video games to the internet. Are you a marketer with something to promote? Just use the word addiction and watch those headlines flood in.
  • “Thank you for letting me vent.” People don’t talk about their emotions anymore, they ‘vent’. Contrary to the psychobabble, though, people are not like steam engines.
  • “You need to engage your right-brain”. Refers to the purported importance of the right-side of the brain in creativity. I’ve moaned about this before.
  • “I’m stuck at denial” (without a paddle, ha ha). A reference to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ ‘five stages of grief’ which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross never suggested one stage had to be completed before the next and there’s little evidence for these stages anyway.

Send in your favourite psychobabble

These are just a few to get your bile flowing. Once you’ve worked yourself up sufficiently please send in your personal favourite(s). It could be psychobabble from any context: work, home, school, childhood, sport, TV – anything you like as long as it has some connection to psychology.

Then I’ll publish them here as a list and we’ll vote for our favourite bit of psychobabble!
Don’t forget to include your name, or if you would prefer to submit anonymously then just let me know.

About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.