Psychobabble As a Language: Richard Dean Rosen and Beyond

It’s apparent that we can’t proceed any further without a name for this institutionalized garrulousness, this psychological patter, this need to catalogue the ego’s condition. Let’s call it psychobabble, this spirit which now tyrannizes conversation in the seventies. Richard Dean Rosen

The word “psychobabble” was coined in 1975 by journalist Richard Dean Rosen and became popularized a couple years later when his book Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling was released. 

His definition: “a set of repetitive verbal formalities that kills off the very spontaneity, candor, and understanding it pretends to promote. It’s an idiom that reduces psychological insight to a collection of standardized observations, that provides a frozen lexicon to deal with an infinite variety of problems.”

Common psychobabble words, according to Rosen, included codependentdenialdysfunctionalnarcissismself-actualization, synergy, and many more.

It’s easy to see, then, that the basic concept remains relevant today. How is psychobabble currently defined? From The Free Dictionary“Writing or talk using jargon from psychiatry or psychotherapy without particular accuracy or relevance.”

British psychologist Jeremy Dean has posted on his PsyBlog some pet peeve psychobabble statements. They are presented below verbatim:

  • ‘Their brains lit up in the scanner.’ Parts of the brain are said to ‘light up’ when we remember, lie, do our taxes and, probably, go to the toilet. Surely everyone knows this is just short-hand for increased blood-flow in a certain part of the brain? Do they hell.
  • ‘I’m alive so I must be addicted to breathing.’ If you do something more than twice a week it’s an addiction: from sex, to video games to the internet. Are you a marketer with something to promote? Just use the word addiction and watch those headlines flood in.
  • ‘Thank you for letting me vent.’ People don’t talk about their emotions anymore, they ‘vent.’ Contrary to the psychobabble, though, people are not like steam engines.
  • ‘You need to engage your right-brain.’ Refers to the purported importance of the right-side of the brain in creativity. I’ve moaned about this before.
  • I’m stuck at denial’ (without a paddle, ha ha). A reference to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ ‘five stages of grief’ which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross never suggested one stage had to be completed before the next and there’s little evidence for these stages anyway.

On the issue of right-brain psychobabblePosit Science offers the following: “This myth holds that a right-brain person is generally creative, intuitive, artsy, while a left-brain person is more of a problem-solver, more linear, logical. The myth arose from genuine science, but new imaging technology has shown that the brain is more interdependent than once thought.”

Dean asked that readers submit their own examples. Here are just some of them:

  • “My pet peeve is the use of OCD in, I get really OCD about cleaning my kitchen. What’s really offensive about the usage is that it suggests one can spontaneously develop and un-develop a disorder. This is offensive to people who actually live with mental illness daily. Unless it’s interfering with your functioning, it’s not a disorder.
  • “Since I am not a native English speaker I didn’t come across someone calling me anal until I started to study in England. At first I was shocked, since I didn’t immediately understand my friend was not referring to my anus, but to my personality. I don’t think many people realize that they are referring to one of the personality traits emerging from the failure to successfully complete one of Freud’s developmental stages.
  • “What annoys me most is conversational psychoanalysing – when someone you know (outside of a therapeutic context) frequently tells you that you don’t really mean what you’re saying, that you’re in denial about your true feelings or ignoring what is going on at a subconscious level. Particularly annoying is when they then go on to tell you what you’re really feeling!”
  • “The most irritating one is the word schizophrenia which is wrongly used whenever someone refers to split personalities. I just can’t hold myself back from being a besserwisser and telling them that they have no idea what schizophrenia is.”
  • “When people describe themselves or others as being Type A, when in fact they’re nothing like what Type A is supposed to be. Never mind the ridiculous dichotomy of dividing all human beings into ‘having these collection of traits’ and ‘not having these collection of traits’.”
  • “After a traumatic event (say, the VA Tech shootings) ‘grief counselors’ parachute in to help the survivors/witnesses get closure and move on. My father died over 20 years ago; I still don’t have ‘closure’, though I stopped grieving after what apparently was an appropriate interval. His absence is an ongoing part of my life that I don’t think will ‘close’.”
  • Hardwired is surely one of the most abused terms in both science journalism and everyday language. According to even usually quite reliable sources, we’re ‘hardwired’ for money, risky behaviour, religion, feeling others’ pain, art, fraud, oh, and liking pink, if you’re a girl of course.”

By the way, a “besserwisser” (see item above on schizophrenia) is another word for “know-it-all.” I feel compelled to explain this because I’m not only anal about my writing but also so OCD and Type A that sometimes I feel totally schizophrenic.

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