In an earlier post, I offered my nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept: negative reinforcement (which is not a punishing, but a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking ibuprofen leads to relief from a headache).
Second place on the most-misunderstood list went to heritability. Students often wrongly think that if intelligence is 50 percent heritable then “half of our intelligence is due to our genes.” Actually, 50 percent heritability would mean that, within the population studied, half of the variation among individuals is attributable to genes.
Now my bronze medal award in the most-misunderstood competition: short-term memory. The misuse of the word appeared repeatedly in an otherwise excellent talk I recently heard on care for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. For example, we were told that “They often have good long-term memory for their earlier life, but have lost their short-term memory for what they did yesterday.”
The presenter, in very good company, didn’t understand that psychologists define short-term memory as the seconds-long memory of, for example, the phone number we’re about to enter in our phone, or of an experience we’ve just had and are processing for long-term storage. The dementia-related memory problem described was not the result of short-term memory loss. Rather, it demonstrated an inability to transfer short-term memories into long-term storage, from which the person could retrieve the experience an hour or a day later. (Our memory of yesterday is a long-term memory.)
Negative reinforcement, heritability, and short-term memory are my gold, silver, and bronze medal winners among psychology’s popularly misunderstood concepts. Perhaps you have other nominees from your experience?