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11 Words From Psychology You're Probably Using Wrong

Envy and jealousy are not the same thing.

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A paper published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Education clears up 50 psychological word pairs whose meanings you might be getting mixed up. Here are 11 of them.

1. “Delusion” vs “hallucination"


Delusions are "fixed false beliefs" that aren't commonly believed in your culture. But hallucinations are things you experience with one or more of your senses, despite there being no outside sensory stimulation. Put simply: You can't hear, see, taste, smell, or touch a delusion, but any of those senses might be involved in a hallucination.

The two can be related, though. For example, you might hear voices that aren't really there (a hallucination) and then come to believe that people are out to get you (a delusion).

2. “Obsession” vs “compulsion”

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These two are related, but distinct. Obsessions are "recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced as intrusive or unwanted", whereas compulsions are "repetitive behaviors or mental acts" that you feel driven to do in response to an obsession or set of rules, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5.

You might have persistent thoughts about cleanliness (that's the obsession part) and then repeatedly wash to try to fix the problem (that's the compulsion).

3. "Envy" vs "jealousy"

Envy refers to the negative emotion you experience when you're coveting someone else's attributes or possessions, but jealousy refers to when something you already have – usually a relationship – is threatened by a third person.

According to the authors of the Frontiers in Education paper, the simplest way to think of the distinction is: Envy involves two people, and jealousy involves three or more. They write:

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.

4. “Repression” vs “suppression”


In psychology, both these terms refer to a defense mechanism in which someone can't remember certain things. But repression means the forgetting was unconscious – you didn't make a decision to forget anything, your brain did the work without you being aware. Suppression, on the other hand, involves actively trying to forget things.

5. “Psychopath” vs “sociopath"

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Psychopathy is a personality disorder. Psychopaths tend to be superficially charming, but also dishonest, callous, and egocentric, and have no guilt or anxiety over their actions.

Sociopathy is sometimes used to mean exactly the same thing. And sometimes it's used to underscore the social causes in some cases of psychopathy. But it's not actually a formal diagnosis in psychiatry or psychology – so think carefully before you use the two terms interchangeably.

6. “Shame” vs “guilt”


"Virtually, all scholars concur that shame and guilt differ, although they have not always agreed on the nature of this difference," write the authors of the paper. Overall, though, they think shame refers more to a general negative feeling about yourself – thinking you're a bad person – and guilt refers more to feeling bad about a specific event or behaviour.

7. "Empathy” vs “sympathy”


If you're feeling sympathetic towards someone else, you tend to express compassion for them. But empathy goes a step further, and is about being able to appreciate the emotions the other person is feeling, even going as far as feeling those same emotions yourself.

8. “Negative reinforcement” vs “punishment”


This one's pretty simple. Negative reinforcement involves taking something away in order to encourage someone to repeat an action in the future. It doesn't have to be a bad thing – using painkillers to "take away" a headache is an example of negative reinforcement, because next time you have a headache you'll remember that painkillers got rid of it last time (this is the negative part), and take them again.

On the other hand, punishment involves actively doing something to prevent someone repeating the same action, such as making a kid do extra chores if they don't tidy their room when they should, in the hope that next time they will tidy it on time.

9. “Relapse” vs “recurrence”


These two have similar meanings, but with a crucial difference.

The terms "relapse" and "recurrence" are two of the "five R's" in psychological treatment. The full list is: response, remission, recovery, relapse, and recurrence.

Response means a treatment appears to be making someone better, but it's early days. Remission means the person has made a full recovery that has lasted for at least four months. Recovery is similar but means someone has been fully recovered for six months or more.

If the condition returns after someone's been in remission for a few months, but isn't yet officially in "recovery", it's called a relapse. If the condition returns after someone has hit a full six months or more of recovery, it's called a recurrence instead.

10. “Serial killer” vs “mass murderer”

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A grim but straightforward distinction: A serial killer murders multiple people, but in separate incidents broken up by a "cooling-off period", whereas a mass murderer kills multiple people in the same incident.

11. “Antisocial” vs “asocial”

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People who are asocial tend to withdraw from others, either because they're shy or because they're just introverted and not that bothered about being around other people.

But if someone is antisocial it means they do reckless or maybe even illegal things that actively harm other people.

H/T BPS Research Digest

Kelly Oakes is science editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Kelly Oakes at

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