"Brainwashing," and Other Psychological Terms to Avoid

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In a review published in Frontiers in Psychology, Emory University psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld and his colleagues have compiled a helpful list of “inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases... ” to avoid, or avoid using incorrectly, with detailed explanations why.

We provide corrective information for students, instructors, and researchers regarding these terms, which we organize for expository purposes into five categories: inaccurate or misleading terms, frequently misused terms, ambiguous terms, oxymorons, and pleonasms. For each term, we (a) explain why it is problematic, (b) delineate one or more examples of its misuse, and (c) when pertinent, offer recommendations for preferable terms. By being more judicious in their use of terminology, psychologists and psychiatrists can foster clearer thinking in their students and the field at large regarding mental phenomena.

Here, for example, is the entry for “Brainwashing”:

Brainwashing. This term, which originated during the Korean War (Hunter, 1951) but which is still invoked uncritically from time to time in the academic literature (e.g., Ventegodt et al., 2009; Kluft, 2011), implies that powerful individuals wishing to persuade others can capitalize on a unique armamentarium of coercive procedures to change their long-term attitudes. Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials (Zimbardo, 1997). Furthermore, there are ample reasons to doubt whether “brainwashing” permanently alters beliefs (Melton, 1999). For example, during the Korean War, only a small minority of the 3500 American political prisoners subjected to intense indoctrination techniques by Chinese captors generated false confessions. Moreover, an even smaller number (probably under 1%) displayed any signs of adherence to Communist ideologies following their return to the US, and even these were individuals who returned to Communist subcultures (Spanos, 1996).


Some choice examples (see the original article for the detailed explanations):

  • “A gene for...”
  • “Autism epidemic”
  • “Chemical imbalance”
  • “p = 0.000”
  • “Acting out”
  • “Denial”
  • “Fetish”
  • “Mind-body therapies”
  • “Personality type”
  • “Scientific proof”

The best thing about this list is that its main goal is not so much to police as it is to educate (even if it does come across, at times, as prescriptivist). Not every word or phrase on this list should be avoided outright. As the explanations that accompany them clarifies, many of these terms can and should be used, but they should be used carefully and deliberately.


Read the full list at Frontiers in Psychology.

Contact the author at rtgonzalez@io9.com. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk | CC BY-NC 2.0.