All of us, at some time, may have read something in a self help book, listened to a TV psychologist or laughed off an advertising slogan as “psychobabble”. Ever described yourself as “OCD” because you like a neat fridge? Or said you’re “addicted” to chocolate? You’re probably doing it yourself. But what is psychobabble? And is it always misplaced?
The term psychobabble is actually not that old. It originated in a 1975 book by journalist RD Rosen who noticed language being used to describe psychological ideas was not describing effectively what was going on. He argued that psychobabble was the use of jargon or cliché that “kills off the very spontaneity, candour, and understanding it pretends to promote”.
The term quickly spread to be used as a term of abuse in over-complicated psychological descriptions and also as a general overuse of psychological jargon in ordinary life.
Craig B Hallenstein developed this thread in 1978 by arguing that the overuse of psychological jargon, amongst other things, fostered the development of an elitist class of psychological workers who were privileged in various insights into the human condition.
The overuse of jargon probably does not promote understanding of ourselves and probably does contribute to an unhelpful divide between the people who access psychological help and those who dispense it. My own counselling approach seeks to dissolve, as much as possible, the line between the well and the unwell, since in a sense we all need to find our way and orientate ourselves between the givens of life, as psychotherapist Irvin Yalom talks about – death, meaninglessness and responsibility.
I’m also very interested in the way we do and don’t communicate with each other. Related to psychobabble is “business speak”. We all know and laugh about “blue sky thinking”, even if we don’t really know what it means – and technobabble – which, if something is described as “quantum”, we are probably being technobabbled.
In all these cases, hierarchies are cemented between those that know and those that don’t – and little actual communication is taking place. The use of psychobabble in counselling and psychotherapy does not seem all that different to me – perhaps we just need to be thinking outside the box?