Be wary of using these psych terms in medical research reporting

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo by Ethan.frain, via Wikimedia Commons

During a recent AHCJ webinar, a guest speaker discussed problems he sees in media reporting on addiction, including terminology that promotes stigma, misunderstanding and misconceptions about the disease. Language can be powerful and potentially damaging in many areas of medicine, but particularly in mental health. Journalists need to be wary of more than negative or stigmatizing language. They may be better off avoiding certain frequently misunderstood terms and more carefully choose words that are more precise and accurate.

A helpful article by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University’s Department of Psychology in Atlanta and some colleagues addresses the latter point. The piece, “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous and logically confused words and phrases,” is open access at Frontiers in Psychology, so journalists can download for their reference. The paper is aimed primarily at students and teachers in psychology and psychiatry, but can be useful for journalists as well, especially if they are covering medical research in mental health.

Ironically, the title of the article itself can be a bit misleading since it suggests that the expressions highlighted should always be avoided. While several (such as “love molecule,” “truth serum” and “god spot”) don’t belong in any serious story, others are common terms: “antidepressant medication,” “chemical imbalance,” “gold standard” or “the scientific method.”

Lilienfeld and company do not necessarily suggest these terms never be used, but argue that they often are used too frequently and imprecisely. They detail how and when these terms should be used.

They suggest, for example, that the expression “no difference between groups” not be used unless there really is no difference whatsoever between two groups. More often, though, there is a difference between two study groups but the difference does not reach statistical significance. The authors recommend using the phrases “no significant difference between groups” or “no significant correlation between variables” instead.

Now for journalists, those recommended replacements are potentially misleading for a lay audience who may not realize that “significant” here refers to statistical significance. Though wordier, it may be better for us to say “the small difference between the groups was not statistically significant” or “the small difference in groups could have been due to chance,” or another variation.

The Frontiers in Psychology paper also may alert journalists to some red flags in study they are reviewing. For example, the phrase “reliable and valid,” appears in more than 190,000 manuscripts in Google Scholar but its use can be problematic in three ways:

  • Validity is not necessary binary (either valid or not valid).
  • Reliability has three different forms.
  • Both “reliability and validity are conditional on the specific samples examined, and should not be considered inherent properties of a test.”

A journalist who comes across such phrases in a scientific paper is better armed to question it.

Remember this Frontiers in Psychology paper is aimed at students, professors and researchers, so journalists may need to adapt the suggestions to their audiences. The terms are organized under these subheads: “inaccurate or misleading terms,” “frequently misused terms,” “ambiguous terms,” “oxymorons” (“scientific proof” is my favorite under that one) and “pleonasms” (which is the use of more words than necessary to convey an idea).

One thought on “Be wary of using these psych terms in medical research reporting

  1. Terry Griffin

    Thank you for the phrasing advice: “the small difference in groups could have been due to chance.” I have struggled with how to write around the possible misunderstanding created by “not statistically significant.”

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