5 Psychology Terms You’re Probably Misusing

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To treat stroke patients, we can retrain parts of the brain to assume the functions of damaged sections. So why do we keep calling our brains “hard-wired” for anything? (Photo: Harris A Ewing/Wikimedia Commons)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “5 Psychology Terms You’re Probably Misusing.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple PodcastsStitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

We all like to throw around terms that describe human behavior — “bystander apathy” and “steep learning curve” and “hard-wired.” Most of the time, they don’t actually mean what we think they mean. But don’t worry — the experts are getting it wrong, too.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Hey there, blog readers. How do you feel about behavioral economics? Since you are reading a transcript of a Freakonomics Radio episode, you’re probably at least a little bit interested, and we’ve done several episodes on the topic over the years. The man generally considered to be the founder of behavioral economics is Richard Thaler, of the University of Chicago. He too has appeared in several episodes; he’s what you might call a friend of Freakonomics.

So guess what our friend recently did? He went out and won a Nobel Prize. So we thought it’d be nice to have Thaler back on the show to answer our questions, and yours. If you’ve got a question about behavioral economics per se, about what it’s like to win a Nobel, or just what it’s like to be Richard Thaler — send it along. Our e-mail is radio@freakonomics.com. Tell us your name, where you live, what you do. If you’d prefer, you can make an audio recording of your question. Just use the voice-memo app on your phone and send us the file. And keep a lookout for the Thaler episode in the near future. Thanks.

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Scott LILIENFELD: What prompted us to write this article was that many of us felt — I felt — that there was a lot of confusion about psychiatric, psychological terminology both in the popular media, pop psychology, and also even in academic circles.

Scott Lilienfeld is a professor of psychology at Emory University.

LILIENFELD: I’m a clinical psychologist by training. And I also have a real interest in the application of scientific thinking to psychology, and also how thinking sometimes goes wrong and can lead even the best and the brightest to embrace ideas that are sometimes questionable — maybe even pseudo-scientific.

Stephen DUBNER: You are an author on a paper called “Fifty Psychological and Psychiatric Terms to Avoid: a List of Inaccurate, Misleading, Misused, Ambiguous, and Logically Confused Words and Phrases.” But you’re also the author of an earlier book called Fifty Great Myths of Popular Psychology. And I have to say, this book is incredibly fun; I love it. It’s hugely enjoyable on the one hand, but also hugely sobering on the other. It’s kind of like looking at a table of contents of the New York Times over the past 20 years — and I mean that not in a complimentary way to the New York Times. Because basically you’re saying that all these things — all these ideas that people love to embrace and talk about and pass on — are somewhere between bogus and trumped up.

For instance, here are your chapter titles: “Playing Mozart’s Music to Infants Boosts Their Intelligence,” which you argue it does not. “Some People Are Left-Brained, Others Are Right-Brained,” which you argue — and we’ve argued on this show — they are not. “Intelligence Tests Are Biased Against Certain Groups of People,” which you argue they’re not.

So my question is a very rude one, and I ask your forgiveness in advance. But it seems as though, if most of the pop or modern psychology that most of us know are essentially mythical or anecdotal stories that you’re saying are mostly not true, and if so many of the terms are abused or misused or exaggerated… what are you people good for?

LILIENFELD: That’s not a bad question, actually. Psychology is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it is so intuitively interesting to all of us. And the positive side is that we’re all psychologists in everyday life. We all know — or at least think we know — something about love and memory, and friendships and dreams and things like that. The downside though is that because something seems familiar it may sometimes seem understandable. There’s a very hungry, very receptive audience for psychological books on positive psychology, emotions, love, relationships, infidelity. That’s all good. But the danger, I think, is we can very easily push our wonder buttons and push our interest buttons using pseudo-science rather than science.

We here at Freakonomics Radio are totally in favor of people pushing their wonder buttons. But we’re also in favor of real science. So, what are some of these misleading, misused, and abused ideas from psychology?

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Scott Lilienfeld of Emory, along with fellow academics Katheryn Sauvigné, Steven Jay Lynn, Robin Cautin, Robert Latzman, and Irwin Waldman, published a paper in Frontiers in Psychology listing 50 terms in their field that are inaccurate, misleading, and so on. It begins with an epigraph from Confucius: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”

DUBNER: Now I’m curious, when you write a paper that basically tells your peers and the public, “these are all the ways that we’re screwing up,” does that make you unpopular in the field? Are you thought of as a scold?

LILIENFELD: I always remind my colleagues when they give me a hard time about this, I tell them I’ve probably misused virtually every single one of those terms at some point myself. I’m as guilty of a lot of these misuses as anybody else.

DUBNER: So the summary of the article says that the goal is to “promote clear thinking and clear writing among students and teachers of psychological science by curbing terminological misinformation and confusion.” And then you give 50 commonly used terms that fall into five categories. I’d love you to walk me through the categories.

LILIENFELD: Yes, so those are: inaccurate or misleading, frequently misused, ambiguous terms, oxymorons, and pleonasms.

DUBNER: So category one, inaccurate or misleading. Describe the problem and maybe give an example.

LILIENFELD: Those are terms that can often lead people into erroneous conclusions. So one that comes to mind is “bystander apathy.”

DUBNER: Can you tell us what it means, what it represents, and then where it came from?

LILIENFELD: So what we’re referring to here is a fairly well-demonstrated psychological phenomenon that in emergencies — say, when people are observing someone being robbed, or stabbed, or raped — what we sometimes see is a very peculiar and sometimes very tragic phenomenon where people freeze and don’t do anything. And back in the 1960’s, there was a classic series of studies in this regard that was inspired by a real-life tragedy.

James SOLOMON: Early in the morning of March 13, 1964, a 28-year-old woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally attacked in Kew Gardens, Queens, which is a relatively quiet community in New York City.

That’s James Solomon, the director and producer of a documentary film about that real-life tragedy.

SOLOMON: Two weeks later, The New York Times published a story that had originated with the New York police commissioner in a conversation with the then-metropolitan editor of The New York Times, Abe Rosenthal. The police commissioner mentioned that many witnesses had watched and heard what had taken place and reportedly had not called the police.

Solomon’s film is called The Witness. It follows Bill Genovese, Kitty’s brother, as he tries to make sense of the killing many years after the fact. How could so many people have failed to intervene?

SOLOMON: The New York Times reported on its front page that 38 law-abiding citizens had watched for more than a half-hour as this 28-year-old woman was attacked and murdered.

Bibb LATANÉ: Apathy. Apathy was the tagline that Rosenthal gave to the story.

That’s Bibb Latané, a social psychologist and senior fellow at the Center for Human Science.

LATANÉ: For years after the murder and the headline “38 watch and no one calls the police,” this was the subject of different movies, lots of television episodes, and countless magazine articles, books. And most of all, I think in terms of its impact on the country, sermons.

SOLOMON: It spoke to the time. President Kennedy had been assassinated. The country was asking, “Who are we?” We are also not many years from the Holocaust, and it was a story that spoke to the thoughts that many had — that there had been many silent, complicit witnesses to what had taken place in Europe in the 40’s.

LATANÉ: People thought big cities were part of the problem, or that television was part of the problem, or that all kinds of things were part of the problem that was leading us to lose our moral bearings and become almost bestial.

Indeed, how could people just stand by as a woman was brutally attacked, over a significant period of time, ultimately ending in her death? True, the attack happened in the dark middle of the night. People were safe inside their homes, asleep, perhaps scared to venture out. Some who heard the victim shouting thought it was a lovers’ quarrel. But still: was any of that an excuse for such profound apathy, for not a single person calling the police?

LATANÉ: One of the results of the Kitty Genovese murder and the uproar that came out about it is the adoption of the 9-1-1 system, which is now all through the U.S. Before the event, it wasn’t all that easy to report a crime in process.

The Genovese murder reverberated through many realms of life for many years.

SOLOMON: It came to define New York City as a place of apathy, violence.

It defined human behavior generally. In 1994, on the murder’s 30th anniversary, President Bill Clinton spoke about it during a public-safety forum in New York.

Bill CLINTON: Well, that story shocked us all 30 years ago, not just because of what happened to that woman, as tragic as it was, but also because of what had happened to her neighbors. It sent a chilling message about what had happened at that time in a society, suggesting that we were each of us not simply in danger, but fundamentally alone.

Rep. Steny HOYER (C-SPAN): Mr. Speaker, 38 neighbors heard her cries, but, out of fear or irresponsibility, not one went to her aid. The next morning, she was found dead.

That’s Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland in 1995, referencing the Genovese murder while urging his peers to pull out of a U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia.

Rep. Steny HOYER (C-SPAN): Today, Bosnia cries out for help. Kitty Genovese is not in Bosnia, but genocide resides there now. Let us act today to lift the arms embargo to give beleaguered Bosnia a chance!

SOLOMON: Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz pointed to Kitty Genovese’s murder as having enormous influence on his thinking about international policy.

Paul WOLFOWITZ: It stuck with me as just a terrible example of disengagement. And then, when I started dealing with decisions about putting American soldiers into harm’s way, the simple clarity of it to me said, “You don’t want to be one of the 38.” And as a country we don’t want to be one of the 38.

SOLOMON: And he said, it’s not the cost of action, it’s the cost of inaction.

International affairs. Public safety. The image of New York City. And there’s one more realm where the Kitty Genovese murder lived on:

SOLOMON: Nowhere was it more impactful than in the field of psychology, behavioral psychology, as a question as to, “how do we remain silent?”

Bibb Latané, was one psychologist who began asking that question. A few years after the murder, he embarked on a series of studies with fellow psychologist John Darley.

LATANÉ: John Darley and I were both newly minted tenure-track professors in New York City, he at New York University, me at Columbia University.

They’d met at a cocktail party.

LATANÉ: We discovered that we both, in some degree, resented the fact that every time we met somebody from outside the university, they would say, “Oh, you’re a social psychologist, so how do you explain this apathy that people in New York seem to have?”

Latané wasn’t convinced that apathy was necessarily the operative explanation. One part of the puzzle: there weren’t just one or two witnesses — but 38.

LATANÉ: Darley and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s part of the explanation. Maybe the fact that it was 38 people led them to behave differently than if it had just been one or two.”

One of the experiments they ran came to be known as the “Lady in Distress.”

LATANÉ: Judy Rodin — who was then a graduate student at Columbia University — played the role of an experimenter who recruited Columbia students to come up to the mathematics building, to fill out some questionnaires. And while they were doing that, she went through a folding curtain into her office next door. Before she went, the students could see that there was a desk with books piled high in a bookcase, and a rolling chair.

There were three experimental conditions: one in which a student was alone, one with a friend, and one with a stranger.

LATANÉ: Over and over again, they could hear Judy say something about having to get that book down. They could hear the noise of her pulling the rolling office chair up to the desk, and trying to climb up on the chair. They heard the crash and the cry as the chair went out from under her feet and she fell on the floor.

She didn’t actually fall; she jumped down. But—

LATANÉ: It was a pretty effective simulation of somebody possibly having a serious accident in the room next door.

So what’d the students do? And: was their response influenced by whether they were alone?

LATANÉ: Whether they were alone or with other people made a major difference in what they did, with Judy being rescued far more likely if there was only one person hearing her, than if there were two.

LILIENFELD: All things equal, the more people who are present at an emergency, the less likely the likelihood of help.

That, again, is Scott Lilienfeld.

LILIENFELD: The beauty of this was they took pains to try to replicate the findings fairly well. And they observed quite similar effects across different experimental paradigms. So for example, another case, there were people in a room — a small little room — filling out questionnaires, and then what appeared to be smoke began filling up the room.

LATANÉ: Somebody in there alone would typically be working away, they’d smell something first, look up, see that there’s smoke coming out of this vent. And then most often they would find the secretary in the office outside and say, “Hey, something strange is in there. I don’t know if it’s a problem, but there’s smoke.”

LILIENFELD: They were much more likely to run out than when other subjects were there.

LATANÉ: When two people were in there, they would each maybe look up at it, appear puzzled, but each seeing the other one not doing anything presumably felt it wasn’t really fire or that the appropriate thing is to stiff it out and stay there. The phenomenon was surprising, because the smoke got pretty intense after a while, and people were coughing and having to wave smoke away from their faces with — I think they had a file folder in front of them. They were clearly willing to endure discomfort rather than the embarrassment of overreacting.

DUBNER: So the opposite of safety in numbers: if there are a lot of people around —

LILIENFELD: That’s right.

DUBNER: And what was the alleged psychological underpinning of that effect? Why would people be less likely to intervene?

LILIENFELD: So according to Darley and Latané, one of them is just pure fear of intervening. Another one is fear of making a fool of oneself and looking stupid. But there are two other malignant processes that often get set into motion. The first is what they call pluralistic ignorance.

LATANÉ: When you have an emergency in a public situation, where people can see and be seen by others, you have a particular situation where everybody is trying not to flip out, trying not to panic or run screaming.

LILIENFELD: That’s particularly likely when the situation is ambiguous, when it’s not entirely clear that something is an emergency. We see a couple shouting or arguing or something, we don’t know is this really an emergency, or is this just two people having a spat. And what we do is we look around, we see that no one else is intervening. And as a result we figure, “Oh, I guess this is not an emergency.”

LATANÉ: And so that can lead to people failing to intervene.

LILIENFELD: The second process is what they called diffusion of responsibility. When there are multiple people around, we feel less responsibility, less personal guilt, for the consequences of doing nothing. We can always tell ourselves later — probably it’s a rationalization — but we can tell ourselves later, “Well, I should have intervened, okay, but 10 other people could have done it as well.”

DUBNER: Now this idea came into the psychological canon in the, what, late 60’s, early 70’s?

LILIENFELD: Late 60’s were the main studies, that’s right.

DUBNER: And so describe for me briefly just how long it held prominence for, or how long it was considered legitimate, and how strong was the effect?

LILIENFELD: Yes, I would say the effect itself actually is fairly robust. I think what’s not robust is the idea that somehow people are apathetic. In most cases, much more likely what’s happening is that people feel psychologically frozen.

So there’s a supposed psychological phenomenon — bystander apathy — that turns out to be misinterpreted, or exaggerated. What about the story that inspired it, the murder of Kitty Genovese?

LILIENFELD: The irony of this is a number of people have since noted that as it was originally described, much of what the New York Times reported was not accurate.

SOLOMON: There is a saying that many journalists have, that some stories are too good to check. And this was one of those kinds of stories, where its power almost defied the facts.

That again is James Solomon, director of The Witness.

SOLOMON: It took, in many respects, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s brother, over the course of 10 years of his life, to unravel the story of his sister’s murder, for us to begin to understand just how flawed the story was.

Let’s go back to the original Times report. It read, “for more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

SOLOMON: In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the Kitty Genovese murder, the New York Times revisited its own story.

A local resident, Joseph de May Jr., had begun investigating and found several problems with the original reporting. For starters, there weren’t three attacks:

SOLOMON: There were two attacks, and one attack, yes, that was on the street, but the other, the second attack, happened in a small vestibule. The greater majority of neighbors were asleep. And the much greater majority only heard — did not see — an attack.

Nor was it true that no one did anything.

SOLOMON: One of Kitty’s neighbors yelled out to “leave the girl alone.” And the attacker, Winston Moseley, ran off. Those who were at the window at this point saw Kitty stagger around the corner and then lost sight of her.

The attacker returned only after things had quieted down.

SOLOMON: By that point, she had made her way inside a vestibule, inside an interior space, where she had collapsed. No one on the street could have seen her at this point. So there were many who heard portions of the attack, and few who saw even portions, and none who saw it beginning to end.

Perhaps the most neglected part of the narrative is what happened next, as Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill discovered during his years-long investigation.

SOLOMON: It wasn’t until Bill started reading the trial transcript decades later that he came to see, well, there was someone there who rushed to Kitty’s aid. And her name was Sophia Farrar. She was Kitty’s actual next-door neighbor. And when she received a phone call that Kitty was hurt, she rushed outside without hesitating, down her stairs, down a back alley, still in her nightclothes — it’s 3:00 a.m. — having no idea what was out in the rear alley, and who and what was inside the vestibule. Sophia had to force her way inside the vestibule, because Kitty was now laying inside the doorway, her body up against the door, and she cradled Kitty. She cradled Kitty and reassured Kitty, and wasn’t sure if Kitty — who was at that point in extraordinary physical duress — realized she was in a friend’s arms. But Kitty did die in the arms of a friend.

Sophia FARRAR: She was my friend, and I knew she was hurt and she needed help. That was my reason for flying down those stairs.

That is Farrar, in the film, explaining to Bill Genovese that his sister at least hadn’t died alone.

FARRAR: And then when I came in, I’ll never forget the black — it kills me when I think about it — the black leather gloves, and all the cuts, all through the gloves, on her both hands. I only hope that she knew it was me — that she wasn’t alone.

As for Kitty’s other neighbors: it appears that at least one of them did knowingly refrain from helping. But for many others, things were much less clear. Some who heard the commotion claimed to have thought it was a drunken brawl or a lovers’ quarrel. Still others insisted they did call the police, after the first attack. The police log, meanwhile recorded only one call, well after her murderer had left the scene.

A cynic might wonder if the police were telling the whole truth. What if witnesses had called, and the police failed to respond? Remember, this story got its start when the New York police commissioner told the Times editor Abe Rosenthal about the 38 witnesses who did nothing. This was after the killer had already been caught and had confessed. He also confessed to a second murder — but the police had already gotten a confession from someone else for that one. That’s what Rosenthal was asking about when the police commissioner started talking about the 38 witnesses. Did the police have incentive to play up “bystander apathy” in the Genovese murder?

Here’s how Steve Levitt and I wrote about this scenario in our book SuperFreakonomics: “A story about two men arrested for the same murder clearly had the potential to embarrass the police. Furthermore, given the prolonged and brutal nature of the Genovese murder, the police may have been touchy about who caught the blame. Why hadn’t they been able to stop it?”

With this kind of a story, especially after so much time, there will always be elusive details. Suffice it to say that the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese had been repackaged to represent something that it probably didn’t.

LATANÉ: The “big T” truth is that this probably wasn’t apathy. The whole interpretation of the story was probably wrong. It’s probably a social-inhibition effect. I don’t think most psychologists would use the word “apathy.” A number of them — and I think it’s either misleading or not very descriptive — will call it the “bystander effect,” but that doesn’t tell you whether the bystander effect is to increase or decrease reporting. That’s why I like “social inhibition” or “bystander inhibition,” because that tells you what the effect is.

LILIENFELD: There’s probably a kernel of truth, but it’s probably a gross oversimplification. So much of what was reported was inaccurate.

DUBNER: To me, the irony is that the psychological idea of bystander apathy was created essentially by one newspaper article that, from my perspective, was just a model of poor journalism, that was driven by what we think of as the “if it bleeds, it leads” school of thought. But really, even deeper than that, it goes to another psychological concept, which is this seeming attraction to, or thirst for, the worst version of ourselves. Was this story, in your professional opinion, just too bad to not be true? Was that part of what helped establish the myth?

LILIENFELD: I don’t know. Maybe at some level, we may be drawn to those stories perhaps because they may seem to vindicate our own failures to intervene in some cases. We’ve all had times where maybe we should have done something and we didn’t. And maybe those stories in some way give us a certain amount of reassurance; it’s not just me. But it may just also be the fact that we kind of like things that are sensational.

DUBNER: And give me a sense of the downside of how robustly the bystander apathy — the notion — was embraced. Did it — I don’t mean to say it set back the field of psychology — but maybe it did, I don’t know.

LILIENFELD: I don’t know if it did. If it set back anyone it was probably a generation of psychology students who may have misunderstood this. What students do need to understand is that most people are in fact quite empathic. Yes, there are exceptions. But most of us do have a deep-seated capacity for emotional empathy and when most of us see emergencies, yes, we want to help.

Deep inside of us is the hero; also deep inside of us is the chicken. And maybe in some ways recognizing the fact that part of us is kind of chicken is the first step to helping us overcome it. There is a danger, I think, in assuming that anyone who does not intervene in an emergency is a monster or inherently a bad person. But in fact we’re all capable of that.

DUBNER: We are such imperfect animals, aren’t we?

LILIENFELD: We sure are. My colleague at Emory, Frans de Waal, likes to call us the bipolar ape. We’re capable of great evil in some cases, but we’re also capable of great goodness. That’s part of what makes us such a fascinating, such a complex, and sometimes, such an infuriating species.

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Okay, so the stalwart psychological phenomenon you may know as “bystander apathy” is mostly a faulty interpretation based on the faulty reporting of a 1964 murder. What other things do we know to be so that in fact, are not? How about the notion of being “hard-wired” for a certain behavior?

Fox News: New research on the mind has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hard-wired in our brains.

NBC News: And the problem for parents is kids don’t just like sugar — they’re biologically hard-wired for it.

LILIENFELD: I think in the overwhelming majority of cases in which it’s used, “hard-wired” is really misleading and I think sometimes potentially pernicious because it can lead people into assuming that certain behaviors cannot be changed. “The predisposition toward infidelity is hard-wired in the brain” — it must mean that as a male I can’t resist my inclination toward infidelity. Hogwash, of course I can! And we know these things can be resisted, although not always easy.

Sharon BEGLEY: If you say it’s hard-wired, implicitly — or actually not that implicitly, quite explicitly — the message is, you can’t change that.

Sharon Begley has been writing for decades about neuroscience.

BEGLEY: Just as if you wanted to go into your computer’s hard drive with a teeny little screwdriver and start messing around with those integrated circuits to change something, that will not work out very well.

But the hard-wired idea didn’t originate with computing.

BEGLEY: The history of neuroscience has shown us that even going back centuries, whatever was the prevailing cool mechanical machine, device, whatever, that was the metaphor that people appealed to. So the brain was compared to a counting machine, to a clock. And then computers burst on the scene and so people said, “Well, then the brain is like a computer.” But one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience over the last few years has been, in fact, that all that hard-wired stuff is completely wrong in very fundamental ways.

LILIENFELD: There are very few — if any — psychological attributes that are strictly genetically determined, strictly hard-wired into the brain.

BEGLEY: This realization has also led to treatments for major depressive disorder, because there’s a clear neurocircuitry underlying it. O.C.D., which reflects over-activity in a particular circuit, through the form of therapy called cognitive behavior therapy, the over-activity in that circuit can be quieted just as much as if people take the medications that are prescribed for O.C.D.

The brain can even be trained to control different body parts after a stroke.

BEGLEY: So when someone has a stroke, and the region that controlled — we’ll just pick the example of the right hand — is wiped out, obviously you have trouble moving your right hand. But it turns out that there are interventions, rehab techniques, that can teach the brain to turn its right side into the part that controls the right hand. So again, what had been controlled in the left side of the brain, it can move over to the right side and assume a totally new function.

This is not to say the brain’s flexibility is unlimited.

BEGLEY: If you were to ask me, “Can somebody think themselves out of schizophrenia, or think themselves out of addiction?” I would say in those two examples, we do not have evidence that that is possible.

But, Begley says, it may be time to trade in the hard-wired metaphor for a less misleading one.

BEGLEY: The brain is more like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can seem to incise lines on it, and they look for all the world like they’re real, but with a little bit of shaking up, you can make significant changes.

DUBNER: Next phrase, if you would — love this one — “statistically reliable.”

LILIENFELD: The danger of “statistically reliable” is it can mislead people into thinking that if a result is statistically significant, if it falls below a particular threshold for statistical significance — psychologists often use .05, that is 1 in 20, as a kind of rough guideline, — a lot of people think, “Oh, therefore it is likely to replicate in other samples.” Typically when psychologists refer to reliability they mean consistency: consistency over time. That is a misuse of the term because, in fact, most significant results probably don’t replicate. So we shouldn’t confuse a result that is statistically significant with one that is likely to be reliable, consistent over time, or replicable. They’re two very different things.

DUBNER: The next phrase. “Personality type.”

LILIENFELD: “Personality type” — you see that a lot in psychology, especially in pop psychology. Typologies of personality have been around with us since the days of Hippocrates and others. We like to sort people into different types — that is, mutually exclusive discrete categories: introverts versus extroverts, neurotics versus non-neurotics, intuitive people versus non-intuitive people, and so on. But in fact we know from the personality literature that most and probably all personality traits are continuously distributed much like height or weight. They really are dimensions.

Jerome KAGAN: We want to make a distinction between a personality type and a personality dimension.

That is Jerome Kagan, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard and a pioneer of developmental and personality psychology.

KAGAN: A dimension implies that people range along a certain trait, like how agreeable are you. A type implies a pattern of traits. The major theorist, of course, was Freud, and Freud did posit types. He said there were anal types, there were oral-aggressive types. And although those ideas were appealing in the 1920’s and 30’s, they turned out to not match good scientific inquiry. And so no one uses them anymore.

What most psychologists study, these days, are traits — although traits and types are often confused, which leads to fundamental misunderstandings about personality.

KAGAN: The biggest error is to assume that these personality traits — agreeableness, conscientiousness — are unitary — they only have one cause — and that they’re inherited. They’re not in your genes, and there’s no basic set of personality traits.

LILIENFELD: So assuming that certain people fall into types I think can predispose us to a lot of misunderstanding, because it can make us think that certain groups of people are somehow qualitatively different — different in kind rather than in degree — from the rest of us. Yes, introverts and extroverts do differ in important ways, but in fact they often grade imperceptibly into each other.

DUBNER: Is this related to the broad concept of “hard-wired,” and if it is, is there some comfort in the notion that, “Oh, I can explain better that person’s behavior if I can attribute it to something that was etched already into the code.”

LILIENFELD: So, I think in some cases — not all — but in some cases, this idea of something being dichotomous — yes or no; presence or absence — may be tied in our heads to the idea that somehow it is biologically wired that we’re either X or Y.

DUBNER: And the last one we’ll do right now is “steep learning curve.”

LILIENFELD: A lot of people will say, “Oh, I started on a new job where I was having to do something new. And this job has a really steep learning curve.” In fact they’re getting it backward. A steep learning curve is easy. Because a steep learning curve means —

DUBNER: You learn a lot in a hurry, right?

LILIENFELD: Not slowly.

DUBNER: When I read that in your paper I thought, “Oh my goodness, that’s really interesting that we’ve all got it backwards.” But then I quickly rationalized and said, “Well, I guess what I always assumed was that the steepness was on the axis referring to difficulty somehow,” right? And that if a task is particularly difficult, then that’s the steepness, and that’s the curve I’m on. So really, when we encounter something that’s really difficult, and we’re having a hard time mastering it, we should say we’re on a very shallow —

LILIENFELD: A very shallow learning curve, that’s right. I think when people say, “This task has a steep learning curve,” what they mean is, “Man, I feel like I’m going up like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill and going up a very steep mountain!” But in fact if something has a steep learning curve, that means that it’s acquired very quickly.

DUBNER: Let’s take a step back now and talk about the phenomena that you’ve been describing generally of misuse of language and so on. What would you say are the reasons for this poor usage? Even I, as a total amateur, could imagine a few. Maybe the narrower the language is, the more easily that you can claim as a researcher that your research has legitimate and original value, if it’s getting to something that others hadn’t gotten before. Or maybe you’re trying to cover up the fact that you don’t really know what you’re talking about, or maybe you’re trying to impress peers and journal editors and students — I guess the non-academic saying is, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit, right?

LILIENFELD: I think all of the above, actually. I think some of it’s also the fact that a lot of human behavior, a lot of human phenomena, are very multiply-determined. Even just the way people use terms like O.C.D. or depression. Depression — I think there’s probably some some core thing there, but we’re talking about a very heterogeneous entity. There are probably a lot of different depressions, rather than one pure form of depression out there that’s the same across everyone. So I think it can often mislead us into thinking we’re talking about one thing when in fact we’re talking about multiple things.

DUBNER: And give me an example, a real-world example where there are real, serious ramifications.

LILIENFELD: Some people might think that the quick and simple cure for school shootings is mental-illness reform. I think that may have to be part of the picture, but it’s unlikely to be all of it. And another reason that’s the case is many perpetrators of violence are not mentally ill. So I think the link between mental illness and violence falls in between two extremes. So what we do know is that the substantial majority of the mentally ill — and by the mentally ill, I mean schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychotic depression and the like — the overwhelming majority of people with these disorders are not and never will be violent. The rates are probably well under 5 percent. And we also know that people with severe mental illness are much more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. At the same time, I think we also have to avoid the error of saying there’s no increased risk at all among the mentally ill. It’s probably a modest increased risk among people with schizophrenia, and in particular when severe mental illness is paired with substance use. So we have to realize the picture is a lot more complicated than it’s often portrayed.

DUBNER: Let me ask you a ridiculous and impossible question. If, let’s say, all of psychological and psychiatric knowledge were a pie, like a blueberry pie, how much of the pie is known now?

LILIENFELD: Yeah, that’s a tough one. If I have had to come up with a number, I’d guess about 10 percent. And I think it will vary depending a lot on the area. But I think we tend to overestimate the level and certainty of our knowledge. I suspect when we look back in 100 years, or maybe even 50 years, we’ll be astonished at how silly many of the ideas we currently hold near and dear to our hearts are actually wrong.

DUBNER: I guess in that regard, psychology and psychiatry are very similar to the rest of medicine. But one could argue the same for economics and a lot of the social sciences. It’s really hard to prove a lot of causality in your field, is it not?

LILIENFELD: It is. And I’m inclined to agree with E.O. Wilson, that the real hard sciences are the social sciences — sociology, psychology, and others. And a lot of people say the opposite of hard is easy.

DUBNER: Right.

LILIENFELD: Not to minimize the difficulties of —

DUBNER: Physics is tough.

LILIENFELD: Oh, it’s tough, too. But we live in so much more of a probabilistic world when we’re dealing with people. There are so many other variables coming into play — so many moving parts — and sometimes we’re criticized, perhaps justifiably, for how crappy we are at predicting behavior, like predicting violence. Sometimes it amazes me that we do even as well as we do, that we can do even better than chance, for example, at predicting violence or predicting work performance or predicting happiness or longevity, given all the moving parts.

So even though I teach a course where I call all that stuff into question and try in many cases to debunk it, I don’t look down on people who have those beliefs. Because I think they often reflect a kind of thirst for knowledge, which I think is actually healthy. I think we scientists sometimes make that mistake, when we’re dealing with claims we don’t agree with, like creationism. We sometimes are inclined to think, “Gee, these people are so silly or so stupid.” But in fact many of us, myself included, held ideas that we now look back on as not so good. And I think the bottom line here — not to get too preachy here — but scientific methods, although they’re not perfect and they can make their mistakes too, because they’re practiced by we humans who are all imperfect — but scientific methods are ultimately our best hope forsorting through and sorting out which of these lay beliefs, intuitive beliefs, has some truth and which doesn’t.

So there you go: a dose of humility, along with a plea for good science. Thanks to Scott Lilienfeld for having the humility, and the courage, to challenge the veracity of his own field, and doing so with such grace and nuance. And, going back to the Kitty Genovese story, there’s one further detail I thought you might find interesting. Her killer, remember, was named Winston Moseley. You’ll also remember that he wasn’t caught at the scene — that’s what led to the bystander-apathy story. So how was he caught? It happened several days after the Genovese murder. Here again is James Solomon, director of The Witness.

SOLOMON: Moseley was in another part of Queens in the middle of day and was stealing the T.V. from an individual’s apartment. And as he went back inside, a neighbor noticed Moseley and knew that the neighbor hadn’t given anyone permission to remove things from their house. So he confronted Moseley. And the neighbor chased Moseley and pinned Moseley until the police came. So the ultimate act of a Good Samaritan — and the irony is, the sort of story that we only associate with bad Samaritans had a Good Samaritan who led to the apprehension of Moseley.

The moral of the story, I guess, is to always be careful of what you think you know.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam. Special thanks to James Solomon for letting us use clips from his documentary, The Witness; thanks also to Andy Lanset, New York Public Radio’s director of Archives. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Max Miller, Harry Huggins, and Andy Meisenheimer; we had help this week from David Herman and proud new father Dan Dzula. The music throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via email at radio@freakonomics.com.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode.


  • Sharon Begley, senior science writer for Stat at The Boston Globe.
  • Bibb Latané, social psychologist and senior fellow at the Center for Human Science.
  • Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University.
  • James Solomon, director and producer of The Witness.