psychology definitionsPsychology Definitions and Terms




Psychology definitions can sometimes be hard to come by unless you purchase a book or visit a library. Given that our counseling and therapy website is all about human behavior and by extension, psychology, we thought it would be helpful to provide 100 of the common psychology definitions used in the field of behavioral science. We could not fit all of the terms here but many of the major psychology definitions are included.

Psychology Term Definition
Absolute Threshold Intensity at which one can detect a given stimuli 50% of the time
Action Potential Electrical process by which information travels transmits through length of an axiom
Addiction Psychological and/or physiological dependency on a substance. Can be a behavioral addiction, such as sex addiction.
Aggression Non-subtle or subtle hostility; either innate or resulting from ongoing frustration and directed towards self and/or others. Can be fueled by anger
Anti-social personality Behaviors that are usually not acceptable in society; i.e. setting fires, physically harming other living things
Anxiety A state of psychic tension, producing emotional and physiological stress symptoms as a result of worry and/or part of an mental health issue (disorder)
Anxiety Disorders Cluster of anxiety disorders outlined in the DSM including: social anxiety, panic disorders, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder [GAD] and obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD]
Associationism A simple association and/or co-occurrence of thoughts and/or sensations as the primary basis of meaning, thought, or learning.
Anorexia Eating disorder whereby a person experiences cognitive distortions regarding weight and body size. Clinical features include below healthy body weight
Attachment theory Forms of attachment developed by Henry Harlow; either secure or insecure
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Referred to commonly as ADHD Characterized by a person’s difficulty holding attention. May or may not be impulsive and/or overly active
Attitude A person’s mindset at any given point in time; does not always remain constant or match behavior
Attribution theory A theory used to describe one’s behavior based on their situation or disposition
Avoidant behaviors Intentional avoidance of a person, place or situation that historically has caused someone anxiety.
Behavioral science The systematic analysis and investigation of human behavior through controlled and naturalistic observation
Bereavement A state of sadness that is similar to depression; occurs after the loss of a loved one or a tragic event and is hallmarked by grief
Bigorexia Considered “reverse anorexia”. Clinical features include feelings of being puny or not muscular enough
Central nervous system Made up of brain and spinal chord
Cerebellum Brain area that controls learned motor activities like walking or riding a bike
Cerebral hemispheres Right or left side of the brain
Classical conditioning A method of learning whereby a neutral stimulus is used to evoke a response that is usually a natural response to a given stimulus
Cognitive behavioral therapy A type of therapy designed to dispute irrational thoughts to reduce anxiety and treat depression. Considered a “here and now” therapy. Also referred to as CBT
Cognitive development A person’s thinking, problem solving conceptual understanding, information processing and intelligence skills measured throughout the lifespan
Cognitive dissonance A state in which a person has conflicting thoughts and perceptions of an event or situation, commonly linked to personal behaviors
Cognitive distortion Thinking distortion in thinking with 10 common themes
Conditioned reflex A new response to a stimuli after conditioning. Commonly referred to as a conditioned response
Cognitive rehearsal Term used to describe a mental rehearsal of a given situation. Used to lower anxiety and stress
Conditioned stimulus Used in classical conditioning. A previously neutral stimulus that changes to become the elicited, conditioned response
Conformity Adjusting personal behaviors to meet a given group’s standard
Consciousness An awareness of one’s environment and the self
Contrast A psychological phenomenon where two similar and related stimuli are dualistically presented simultaneously and perceived to be more different than they truly are
Control group Subjects of an experiment who do not experience the independent variable but measured for the dependent variable
Consumerism The study of a person or persons’ purchasing behaviors.
Construct A term used to describe a theory or way of thinking
Companionate A love style theorized by Lee; companion style love
Created family Circle of support that is outside of biological origins but functions much like a family. May have patriarch figure
Dependent Variable A variable that the researcher measures at the end of an experiment
Depression A mind body psychiatric condition characterized by lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, sadness and helplessness. May be part of major depressive disorder or seasonal type
Determinism Doctrine of science that suggests that all occurrences in nature take place according to natural laws
Developmental stages Various periods of life from birth to death that are representative of important life stages across the lifespan
Dysthymia A low grade form of depression that lasts for 2 years or more. Dysthymic disorder associated with this condition
Ego Sigmund Freud’s theoretical construct of personality; ego is the mediator between ID and super-ego
Ethnocentric Judging another culture based solely on one’s own personal culture
Empirical research Research that is conducted by strict standards of science; usually quantifiable and measurable
Etiology Study of origins – the beginnings of something usually connected to medicine, biology or behavioral science
Evolution Term linked to Darwin; theory of how life evolved in different forms
Experimental group Group that is exposed to a treatment; exposed to independent variable
Extinction Classical conditioning term; process of losing previously acquired stimulus associated with a conditioned response
Extrovert Opposite of introvert; personality type that enjoys being social and in social settings
Family of origin A person’s family. May or may not be biological
Free association A term used in psychoanalysis and commonly used in personal journaling
Free recall Term associated with memory recollection; words, sounds, numbers and memories
Functionalism Adaptive survival based on a given environment
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Referred to as “GAD”. Characterized by excessive worry and is fueled by irrational thoughts
Gestalt Often associated with Fredrick Pearls; German for “whole”
Gestalt Psychology Therapy designed to integrate the person and complete the whole; resolution of unfinished business
Guided imagery Use of mental imagery, visual and sometimes auditory, to create an experience, Used in meditation
Humanistic psychology Branch of psychology concerned with free will, creativity and human potential. Characteristically devoid of judgment. Highly influenced by Carl Rogers
Hypochondriac A person who is preoccupied with becoming ill; holds irrational beliefs about becoming “sick”. Clinical term is hypochondriasis
Hypothesis A prediction of the outcome of an experiment
Id Sigmund Freud’s theoretical construct of personality; Id rules sex and aggression and has no sense of time or space – only knows what it wants. Often represented by “devil on shoulder”
Independent variable The variable that can be manipulated or changed by the researcher/experimenter
Information processing The process of information either consciously or subconsciously in humans
Instrumental behavior Behavioral theory suggesting disorders are learned responses to traumatic experiences
Intelligence One’s ability to learn from a situation, add knowledge and problem solve
Intelligence quotient (IQ) Measurement of intelligence. Many tests exists for measurement. Average is around 100.
Introversion Opposite of extroversion; characterized by the liking to be with oneself and do things in a solitary manner. Not typically social
Jungian psychology School of psychology coined after Carl Jung; father of Jungian psychology/theory. Can contain psycho-spiritual elements
Law of effect Law proffered by Thorndike that positive outcomes are generally repeated
Long term memory Memories that are stored in the brain and can be accessed for recall from long ago
Longitudinal study Study of a given behavior or outcome over extended periods of time as part of a research program
Munchhausen syndrome Parent or caregiver who fabricates signs and/or symptoms of an illness in a child
Mental illness Psychological condition that impairs functioning. Can be organic or non-organic in nature
Mental imagery Projection of thoughts, sensations and experiences in the mind. Used with guided meditation
Mindfulness A process of living in there here and now and using all five senses to focus on the present. Commonly connected to mindfulness based living
Narcissist Psychological disorder characterized by lack of empathy or concern for others and tied to selfishness.
Nature vs. nurture Ongoing debate between natural causes of a given dynamic vs. environmental causes
Neocortex Part of the cerebral cortex that controls higher mental functioning
Neurotransmitter Chemical released by a neuron that carries information across gaps and the synapse
Non-conformist Person who typically goes against the grain and does not conform to societal rules
Obedience Subservient behaviors and actions towards a person perceived as an authority figure
Operant conditioning Method of influencing desired behaviors through the use of stimuli. May involve punishment and shaping
Oedipus theory Freudian construct suggesting male wish to eliminate their biological fathers to sexually join with biological mother
Origin of species Charles Darwin’s book that postulated theory of natural selection and adaptation
Paradox A statement or behavior that seems to contradict itself but is none the less true.
Paradoxical intent A set of contradictory instructions given by a therapist used to elicit a desired outcome
Pathology The scientific study of behavior and disease, including outcomes. Used with “pathological”
Personality A person’s pattern of thinking, acting and feeling
Phobia A cluster of anxiety disorders that are pathological in nature characterized by extreme fear of an object, situation or stimuli
Placebo effect Phenomenon where a person experiences relief from illness or distress even though they did not receive a true medication.
Positive reinforcement Stimulus presented after a desired response; increases probability of repeat desired behaviors
Pro-social behavior Positive, socially acceptable behaviors. Opposite of anti-social personality
Psychoanalytic theory Basis for psychoanalysis and based on Freud’s theory of personality
Psychosomatic Physical illness caused by psychological beliefs
Psychosis Extreme distortions in perception, rational thinking and/or affect
Psychotherapy A term used to describe talk-therapy. Used in counseling and therapy as a treatment modality
Psycho-spiritual Term used to describe psychological and spiritual elements as part of wellness. Often used in humanistic psychology
Short-term memory The ability to hold and/or recall events stored in memory from the recent past
Socialization Process whereby children are inculcated into society and learn acceptable behaviors and beliefs in a culture
Substance abuse The use of a substance in a way that it was not intended with the goal of producing a high
Traits A stable set of behaviors and characteristics within a person.
Zeitgeist A term used to describe cultural and moral climate of a given era