Learn more about psychology by reading concise definitions of key terms found in our psychology glossary below.  Please note: this glossary list is a work in progress – we will continue to add terms to the list over time.


Psychology Glossary – Terms [A]

Acculturation: Acculturation is a social, psychological, and cultural process in which modifications and changes are made to an individual, group, or people borrowing traits from another culture, or the merging of cultures resulting from prolonged contact. Historically, acculturation is a change of culture due to direct dominance of another culture through either political or military conquest.

Addiction: Addiction describes a compulsive psychological and/or physical need for and use of a substance or activity despite harmful consequences. Viewed by many scientists as a chronic disease rooted in brain reward circuitry, addiction becomes a pathological pursuit resulting in dependence, tolerance, and dysfunction. The object of addiction can be to just about anything and the experience of addiction is further complicated when related to integral life functions, like eating/food, sex and work.

Ageism: Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against an individual or group of people based on their age. The term was coined in 1969 to describe discrimination against seniors, patterned on sexism and racism, and including prejudice of the aging process itself. However, ageism can be used to describe the stereotyping of children and adolescents as well.

Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an extreme fear of public spaces or situations where the individual perceives the environment to be unsafe with escape being difficult or embarrassing.

Mary Ainsworth: Mary Ainsworth was an American-Canadian psychologist best known for her study and development of the attachment theory. She designed the strange situation procedure in the 1960s to observe early emotional attachment between a child and its caregiver. This led to her presentation and publication of the different attachment styles exhibited in early human relationships: anxious-avoidant, secure, anxious-insecure, and later a fourth open-ended category, disorganized/disoriented.

Alfred Adler: Alfred Adler was a physician and psychotherapist in the early 20th century who founded Adlerian psychology, sometimes referred to as individual psychology. His work pioneered an emphasis on community life, prevention, and an accessible use of psychology for the practical good. Adler was one of the first practitioners to provide group and family counseling as well as addressing community health through public education. His theory concerning the importance and development of a person’s self-esteem – the inferiority complex – played a large role in Adler’s understanding of the human condition.

Altruism: Altruism is the principle or practice of selfless concern for the welfare of others without consideration of personal gain.

Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight due to a pathological fear of weight gain and a distorted self-perception of obesity. Individuals may severely restrict food consumption, abuse diets or laxatives, and exercise excessively to control their weight. However, a fear of weight gain will persist because anorexia isn’t really about food – it’s an unhealthy way to cope with emotional problems – and thinness becomes equated with self-worth. Learn more about Eating Disorders in our Learning Center.

Anxiety: Anxiety is an emotional response eliciting unpleasant states of inner turmoil, feelings of dread, nervous behavior, worry, and general unfocused overreaction to a situation perceived as menacing. The feelings are often accompanied by muscle tension, fatigue, restlessness, and inability to concentrate. Read more about Anxiety in our Learning Center.

Amygdala: The amygdala is a section of the brain performing a primary role in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotions. Research shows a significant correlation between the amygdala and conditioned fear response. This part of the brain controls how an individual reacts to certain stimuli they may find threatening – preparing to either stand and fight or turn and flee.

Attachment: In Western Psychology, attachment describes the deep, emotional bond that connects people to one another. Attachment theory attempts to explain how the the parent-child relationship emerges and continues to influence subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development throughout an individual’s life. In Buddhist Psychology, the concept of attachment is considered the root of human suffering. It refers to our attempts to control things – via clinging to our likes and pushing away our dislikes, rather than accepting the ever-changing, impermanent nature of things (i.e., enjoying experiences, working toward goals, etc., but letting go when things don’t go our way).

Autonomic Nervous System: A subdivision of the nervous system responsible for automatically regulating internal organs and bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and sexual arousal. The two branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, working in conjunction to determine ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic) versus ‘rest and digest’ responses (parasympathetic) based on information received about the body and its external environment.

Psychology Glossary – Terms [B]

Albert Bandura: Albert Bandura is a Canadian-American psychologist presiding as Professor Emeritus in the psychology department at Stanford University. His 1961 Bobo doll experiment was the basis for his develoment of the social learning theory, later renamed the social cognitive theory, and the theoretical construct of self-efficacy. Bandura used these behavioral theories to study human aggression, phobias, trauma, and shift the focus in academic psychology from pure behaviorism to cognitive psychology.

Aaron T. Beck: Aaron T. Beck is an American psychiatrist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1960s Beck’s research on depression deviated significantly from traditional psychoanalytic methods and instead focused on distorted thoughts and problematic behaviors. He theorized that in order to change the symptoms of depression (and other disorders), clients must first learn to recognize and change their recurring negative thoughts. This belief led to the development of the cognitive behavioral therapy model, often referred to as just CBT.

Behavior Therapy: Behavior therapy refers to the systematic use of principles of learning to help an individual understand how changing their behavior can lead to changes in how they’re feeling.

Belief: A state of mind, acceptance, or confidence that something is true, regardless of evidence to support it. For example, a belief in God, or lack of belief in God (atheism). In CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), ‘core beliefs’ refer to deeply held assumptions about oneself and the world that are typically formed early in life; one of the therapeutic tasks in CBT is to help understand and deconstruct core beliefs in order to A.) Determine if they’re accurate and B.) If not, replace them with more accurate, rational perspectives.

Insoo Kim Berg: Insoo Kim Berg was a Korean-American psychotherapist who pioneered the use of solution focused brief therapy and co-founded the Brief Family Therapy Center in 1978. She gained international recognition as an author, therapist, and consultant for her therapy model which placed an emphasis on the client being an expert in their own lives and focusing on the future instead of dwelling on past failures.

Bias: Bias is a prejudice in favor or against a perspective, individual, group, or institution and lacking a neutral viewpoint. A bias may be expressed explicitly on a conscious level usually as a result of a perceived threat or based upon a social acceptance of a reinforced prejudice. However, an implicit bias refers to the stereotypes that affect our understanding and decision-making on an unconscious level. These biases are a result of our cultural conditioning and are activated involuntarily, often without an individual’s awareness.

Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique designed to instruct an individual in the process of self-regulating and controlling normally involuntary biological processes such as breathing, heart rate, skin temperature, and blood pressure. With practice, an increase in awareness of these physiological changes can be linked to related patterns in thought, emotion, and behavior.

Bio-psycho-social model: The bio-psycho-social model suggests that disease and illness are the result of a complex interaction between an individual’s biology (biochemical, immune response, nervous system, genetics), psychological patterns (personality, behavior, cognitive processing), social factors (family, culture, economics), and environmental factors. This model counters the biomedical model attributing disease to only biological factors such as viruses or genetic abnormalities. In some circles more recently, such as schools of social work, spirituality has been added to the model, thus calling it the Bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of assessment and treatment.

Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by periods of depression alternating with periods of mania. Two types of Bipolar disorder exist – Bipolar I (severe symptoms, often resulting in periodic need for hospitalization) and Bipolar II (less severe symptoms, where the highs in particular are not as high and are referred to as hypomania).

Body Image: Body image is a person’s subjective perception of the physical appearance of their own body.

Brene Brown: Brene Brown is a best-selling author and research professor at The University of Houston School of Social Work, studying vulnerability, courage, shame and authenticity. Learn more here: brenebrown.com

Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia is an eating disorder involving distorted body image, obsession with weight, and a loss of emotional control characterized by extreme binge eating followed by self-induced purging or fasting. Learn more about Eating Disorders in our Learning Center.

Bystander effect: A psychological phenomenon in which an individual is less likely to help a victim when other people are present. The probability of intervention decreases with a greater number of bystanders.

Psychology Glossary – Terms [C]

Mary Whiton Calkins: Mary Whiton Calkins was a the first woman to complete a doctoral degree in psychology (although not officially recognized because of her sex), opened the first female founded psychology lab in 1891 at Wellesley College, and served as the 14th President of the American Psychological Association, the first woman to hold the position. She faced daunting adversity as a woman in the field and remained a firm supporter of social justice for women and the suffragist movement. Calkins devoted a large part of her career to developing a system of scientific self psychology based on the conviction that psychology was a study of conscious functioning in relation to environment.

Case Management: Case Management is a collaborative process designed to meet an individual’s holistic health needs through the consecutive phases of assessment, planning, implementation, coordination, monitoring, and evaluation with a culmination in the attainment of pre-identified goals. Case Managers typically have training in nursing or social work and are hired when the physical and/or psychiatric needs of a patient require specialized coordination (e.g., Geriatric Case Management or Case Management for individuals with particularly complex mental health disorders).

Catharsis: The process of releasing and expressing intense, usually repressed emotion.

Classical Conditioning: Classical conditioning describes a learning process in which a biological stimulus is linked with a conditioned stimulus to elicit a new behavior via the process of association. This was first studied in detail by Ivan Pavlov using dogs; Pavlov paired food (biological stimulus) with the use of a bell (previously neutral stimulus) to trigger the dog’s salivary glands. Over time, without introducing food, Pavlov could ring the bell and cause the dogs to salivate. Learn more about Classical Conditioning in How to Change Behavior: A Theoretical Overview.

Client-centered Therapy: A humanistic form of psychotherapy developed in the 1940s by psychologist Carl Rogers. Client-centered therapy uses a non-directive, empathetic approach to empower and motivate clients to fulfill their own potential.

Clinical Case Consultation: A training model for clinicians in which a colleague is approached to discuss a case and receive professional feedback. In mental health training settings, “Supervision” refers to the same thing, whereby a supervisor oversees the trainee’s learning and development by providing formal feedback and oversight.

Clinical Psychologist: A trained professional in psychology who diagnoses and treats psychological problems. Use of the title ‘Clinical Psychologist’ requires a doctorate/PhD along with post-graduate clinical training that leads to licensure.

Clinical Social Worker: A healthcare professional trained to apply clinical social work theory and specialized clinical knowledge and methods to assess, prevent and treat emotional, behavioral or mental difficulties, disorders, conditions or addictions, with the purpose of improving, restoring or enhancing bio-psycho-social-spiritual functioning. Social work training places particular emphasis on understanding the social context of people’s problems and identifying strengths within individuals and groups.

Cognition: Cognition describes the mental process of knowing, remembering, and reasoning to acquire understanding through the experience of the senses.

Cognitive Appraisal: A process referencing how an individual interprets a situation which then determines their emotional reaction. In other words, two people can have completely different reactions to the same situation, depending on how they view or appraise it.

Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance describes a state of psychological discomfort and tension arising from holding two conflicting thoughts or a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors.

Cognitive Science: The interdisciplinary study of thought, learning, and mental organization which draws on research of how the human mind processes language, memory, perception, reasoning, and decision making.

Collective Unconscious: A term coined by Carl Jung to describe a part of an individual’s unconscious mind that is inherited, shared, or common to members of the same species. According to Jung, the human collective unconscious is structured by instincts and archetypes: universal, archaic patterns expressed by individuals and their cultures through mythological motifs.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): This category of medicine includes a variety of treatment approaches that fall outside the realm of conventional medicine but adhere to their own set of diagnostic and therapeutic principles. Complementary medicine refers to the use of alternative healing practices in conjunction with traditional or ‘western’ medicine. Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Examples of CAM forms of treatment include: acupuncture (and other forms of Chinese Medicine); chiropractic medicine; bodywork such as massage and reiki; hypnosis; naturopathic medicine; yoga; tai chi; and shamanic healing.

Conditioning: A learning process in which a stimuli and a behavior become associated with one another leading to a significant influence on an outcome.

Conformity: the human tendency to act in accordance with socially accepted conventions and standards by adopting the behaviors, attitudes, and values of a group.

Contact Hypothesis: The principle that bringing hostile groups together into direct contact will reduce prejudice and improve relations through the pursuit of common goals and the perception of shared interests. Also referred to as the Intergroup Contact Theory.

Coping: the process of minimizing or tolerating a demand perceived to be stressful, overwhelming, or threatening. The strategies adapted to reduce stress are referred to as coping strategies or coping skills.

Counseling: Counseling refers to a relationship and interactions designed to empower individuals and groups to resolve personal, social, or psychological challenges and accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.  Most of the time ‘Counseling’ is done in a professional setting.  However, peer counseling models exist as well, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Counseling Psychology: A general health service specialty in professional psychology focusing on how people function through all stages of life. The practice focuses on the individual, their relationships, and addresses emotional, social, career, and physical health issues to improve a sense of well-being and resolve crises.

Cross-Cultural Psychology: Cross-cultural psychology examines the influential factors and cognitive processes within different cultural contexts that affect how individuals, groups, and populations behave.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: is a Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University known for his concept of flow, a highly focused mental state. Much of his work has been focused on the study of happiness and creativity, leading to years of research and writing concerning the notion of flow – the theory that people are happiest in this state of intense concentration or complete absorption with the activity or situation at hand.

Culture: Culture is a broad term describing how a group of people, through the course of generations, experiences life. The general customs, beliefs, perceptions, and cumulative deposit of knowledge is expressed through behavior, transmitted socially, and perpetuated through societal institutions. Commonly understood in the context of ethnicity and geography, the concept of culture also includes the norms of any type of group in society (e.g., the “culture” of a specific community, business, or family system). These are sometimes referred to as sub-cultures.

Psychology Glossary – Terms [D]

Decision Aversion: Decision aversion describes a tendency to avoid making decisions; the more difficult the decision, the increased likelihood of incurring decision aversion.

Delusions: A delusion is an irrational belief or false impression maintained with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.

Dependent Variable: A variable whose value depends on that of another. In an experimental setting, the dependent variable is measured by how it responds to the independent variable, how it’s affected during the experiment.

Depression: A mood disorder causing a persistent feeling of sadness and a loss of interest affecting how one feels, thinks, and behaves in their day-to-day activities. This state can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and decrease a person’s ability to function or enjoy their life. See our Learn about Depression page for more details.

Developmental Age: In contrast to one’s chronological age, developmental age refers to the age of an individual determined by measures of emotional intelligence, cognitive capabilities, physiological maturation, and social interaction.

Developmental Psychology: Developmental Psychology is the scientific study of how and why humans change throughout the course of their entire lifespan. This includes physical and psychological processes within each stage of growth and aging.

John Dewey: The American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey, was a leading proponent of the school of thought known as pragmatism and considered one of the founders of functional psychology. An ardent advocate for democracy, Dewey’s prolific writings on the subject made him a voice for a liberal and progressive democracy for much of the 20th century.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to to help people who need to change patterns of harmful behavior by increasing the individual’s emotional and cognitive regulation through education, support, and self-reflection. DBT combines techniques for emotion regulation with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness derived from Buddhist meditation practice. Clinical trials of DBT show reduced rates of suicidal thoughts, hospitalizations, and treatment drop-outs when compared to other therapeutic models and has been used successfully in psychological treatment programs for a variety of disorders. Learn more about DBT.

Dissociation: Dissociation is a cognitive process or detachment from reality causing a lack of connection within a person’s thoughts, memory, and sense of self. The experience is commonly displayed on a continuum and can range from mild detachment from immediate surroundings, such a daydreaming, to severe altered states of consciousness in order to detach from an experience.

Dreamwork: Dreamwork is the exploration and incorporation of dreams in psychotherapy to promote self-awareness and introspection. In dreamwork, the therapist does not analyze a client’s dream; instead, they act as a guide, allowing the dreamer to discover meaning for themselves.

Carol Dweck: Carol Dweck is a leading researcher in the field of motivation in human personality and development, focusing on why people succeed and how to foster success. In 2006 Dweck published her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success outlining her implicit theory of intelligence which refers to an individual’s fundamental underlying beliefs regarding whether or not intelligence or abilities can change. The basic premise being that a “growth mindset” (the recognition that ability is flexible and can be developed) generates more motivation and progress than a “fixed mindset” (the belief that one’s qualities are fixed traits). Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford where she continues her research into the origins of human self-conceptions and their impact on behavior.

Wayne Dyer: Wayne Dyer was an American self-development and spiritual growth author and motivational speaker, with a doctorate in Counseling Psychology. His first book, Your Erroneous Zones (1976), outlines his theories on positive thinking and motivation techniques and is one of the best-selling books of all time. Dozens more publications followed and Dyer proceeded to build his success through media appearances, lecture tours, PBS programs, and audiotapes. Dyer called on people to pursue self actualization, relying on the self as a guide, and rejecting societal guilt and other forms of negative conditioning that inhibit individual growth. 20 Quotes in Memory of Dr. Wayne Dyer.