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Anxiety vs. fear, shame vs. guilt, obsession vs. compulsion and other frequently confused psychology terms

The list is aimed at healthcare professionals, but it’s an intriguing and helpful read for the rest of us as well — one that should enhance our “psychological literacy.”

I recently stumbled across a paper published last year in Frontiers in Education that listed 50 “term pairs” in psychology that are commonly confused —such as envy vs. jealousy, prejudice vs. discrimination, anxiety vs. fear and obsession vs. compulsion.

The paper was written on the heels of an earlier one (which I also wrote about in Second Opinion) that described 50 widely used psychology terms that should be avoided. 

The latest list, like the previous one, is aimed at healthcare professionals, but it’s an intriguing and helpful read for the rest of us as well — one that should enhance our “psychological literacy.”  

“Words matter, and science is no exception,” said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University and the lead author of both papers, in a released statement. “All sciences rely on specialized terminology which must be correctly understood to master the field’s core concepts.”

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“In psychology, many terms are confused not only by new students but also by advanced students, psychology instructors, and science journalists,” he added. “These misunderstandings can impede the learning of other psychological ideas.”

Here are some of those confused terms, as described by Lilienfeld and his colleagues in their paper: 

“Negative reinforcement” versus “punishment.” This distinction is familiar to every introductory psychology student, who knows (or at least learned) that negative reinforcement, which involves the withdrawal of a stimulus, increases the likelihood of a previous behavior, whereas punishment, which involves the presentation of a stimulus, decreases the likelihood of a previous behavior. Nevertheless, this fact has not prevented the misuse of these terms in numerous popular sources and even television shows, including The Big Bang Theory not to mention their ubiquitous confusion by generations of undergraduate psychology students. For example, in a news story entitled “British Soccer Players Get Negative Reinforcement,” the reporter described a policy whereby members of a British soccer team were forced to drive around in an old, ugly car for a week following a disappointing showing in a game. In fact, the team management was almost surely punishing, not negatively reinforcing, its poorly performing players. It probably goes without saying that the phrase “punishing reinforcer” is a whopping oxymoron, at least in behavioral lingo.

“Prejudice” versus “discrimination.” Prejudice refers to a belief, whereas discrimination refers to an overt behavior. Specifically, prejudice describes a propensity to “prejudge” others, that is, to arrive at a premature negative judgment of them based on their membership in one or more categories (e.g., African-American, Jew, obese, Republican). In contrast, discrimination refers to the act of treating others poorly, such as insulting them, according them fewer resources, or deciding not to hire them, as a function of their membership in one or more categories.

“Anxiety” versus “fear.” Numerous authors use these terms interchangeably. For example, elected to discuss anxiety and fear synonymously “because they are physiologically indistinguishable.” Nevertheless, a consistent body of literature demonstrates that measures of anxiety and fear are weakly or best moderately correlated and display different psychological and physiological correlates. For example, in the brain, anxiety tends to be left lateralized, whereas fear tends to be right lateralized. The bulk of the research literature further suggests that anxiety is associated with negative affect in the presence of an ambiguous and potentially avoidable threat, whereas fear is associated with negative affect in the presence of an imminent and largely unavoidable threat. Moreover, anxiety tends to persist even after threat dissipates, whereas fear tends to diminish or disappear after threat dissipates. 

“Shame” versus “guilt.” Virtually, all scholars concur that shame and guilt differ, although they have not always agreed on the nature of this difference. Most research suggests that shame reflects a global negative evaluation of the self-following a problematic or unethical behavior (“I am bad”), whereas guilt reflects a more specific negative evaluation of this behavior (“I did a bad thing”). In addition, some research suggests that shame tends to be related to avoidance behaviors, whereas guilt tends to be related to approach behaviors, which are intended to redress the harms generated by the action. 

“Obsession” versus “compulsion.” As the latest edition of the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] notes, obsessions are “recurrent and persistent thoughts urges or images that are experienced as intrusive or unwanted.” In contrast, compulsions are “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.” For example, recurrent thoughts of potential contamination are obsessions, whereas recurrent handwashing intended to neutralize or reduce the frequency of these thoughts are compulsions. Obsessions are anxiety producing, whereas compulsions are anxiety reducing, at least in the short term.

Envy” versus “jealousy.” These terms are so frequently confused in popular parlance (e.g., “I’m jealous that you’re going to Hawaii next week!”) that few people are aware that they differ. Nonetheless, the distinction between them is typically straightforward: Envy involves two people, whereas jealousy involves three or more people. For example, the negative emotion a person might experience upon learning that an academic colleague had received a long-sought-after Nobel Prize is envy. In contrast, the negative emotion that this person might experience upon learning that her colleague was invited to a one-on-one dinner by this Nobel Prize winner is jealousy. Hence, you are envious, not jealous, that your friend is headed to Hawaii next week.

For more information: Frontiers in Education is an open-access journal, so you can read the full list of “50 [term] differences that make a difference” on the journal’s website.