Psychobabble (a portmanteau of "psychology" or "psychoanalysis" and "babble") is a form of speech or writing that uses psychological jargon, buzzwords, and esoteric language to create an impression of truth or plausibility. The term implies that the speaker or writer lacks the experience and understanding necessary for the proper use of psychological terms. Additionally, it may imply that the content of speech deviates markedly from common sense and good judgement.
Frequent use of psychobabble can associate a clinical, psychological word with meaningless, or less meaningful, buzzword definitions. Laypersons often use such words when they describe life problems as clinical maladies even though the clinical terms are not meaningful or appropriate.
Most professions develop a unique vocabulary which, with frequent use, may become commonplace buzzwords. Professional psychologists may reject the "psychobabble" label when it is applied to their own special terminology.
The allusions to psychobabble imply that some psychological concepts lack precision and have become meaningless or pseudoscientific. Science demands the testing of ideas in experiments whose results are repeatable. In this context and since the scientific method is generally replaced by inductive reasoning in psychology, it does not qualify as a science.
Psychobabble is derived from the belief that social and personal problems become more understandable through the use of complex, descriptive, or special esoteric language. The word itself came into popular use after the 1977 publication of Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling, by author and journalist Richard Dean Rosen.
Rosen coined the word in 1975, and it was featured in a cover story of the magazine New Times, which was titled "Psychobabble: The New Language of Candor." His book Psychobabble explores the dramatic expansion of psychological treatments and terminology in both professional and non-professional settings.
Rosen's definition of psychobabble is as follows:
Psychobabble is … a set of repetitive verbal formalities that kills off the very spontaneity, candour, 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.
Certain terms considered to be psychological jargon may be dismissed as psychobabble when they are used by laypersons or in discussions of popular psychology themes. New Age philosophies, self-help groups, personal development coaching, and Large Group Awareness Training are often said to employ psychobabble.
The word "psychobabble" may refer contemptuously to pretentious psychological gibberish. Automated talk-therapy offered by various ELIZA computer programs produce notable examples of conversational patterns that are psychobabble, even though they may not be loaded with jargon. ELIZA programs parody clinical conversations in which a therapist replies to a statement with a question that requires little or no specific knowledge.
"Neurobabble" is a related term. Beyerstein (1990) wrote that neurobabble can appear in "ads [that] suggest that brain 'repatterning' will foster effortless learning, creativity, and prosperity." He associated neuromythologies of left/right brain pseudoscience with specific New Age products and techniques. He stated that "the purveyors of neurobabble urge us to equate truth with what feels right and to abandon the commonsense insistence that those who would enlighten us provide at least as much evidence as we demand of politicians or used-car salesmen."
Psychobabble terms are typically words or phrases which have their roots in psychotherapeutic practice. Psychobabblers commonly overuse such terms as if they possessed some special value or meaning. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is but one significant source of psychobabble. The psychobabble use of terms from this manual waxes and wanes, although the actual incidence of mental disorders does not vary significantly over time.
Rosen has suggested that the following terms often appear in psychobabble: co-dependent, delusion, denial, dysfunctional, empowerment, holistic, meaningful relationship, multiple personality disorder, narcissism, psychosis, self-actualization, and synergy.
Extensive examples of psychobabble appear in Cyra McFadden's satirical novel The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County. In Working with Structuralism (1981), Lodge gives a structural analysis of the language used in the novel and notes that McFadden endorsed the use of the term.
- Rosen, R.D. (1977). Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling (1st ed.). New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0-689-10775-7.
- Compare: Hallenstein, Craig B. (February 1978). "Ethical problems of psychological jargon". Professional Psychology (American Psychological Association) 9 (1): 111–116. ISSN 0735-7028. Retrieved 2010-01-31. "RD Rosen (1975) pointed to the tyranny of 'psychological patter' in his article 'Psychobabble: The New Jargon of Candor.'"
- Dalrymple, Theodore (2010). Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. Gibson Square Books Ltd. p. 140. ISBN 1-906142-61-0.
- Beyerstein, B.L. (1990). "Unvalidated Fringe and Fraudulent Treatment of Mental Disorders". International Journal of Mental Health 19 (3): 27–36.
- McFadden, Cyra (2000-04-05). The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County. Prion Books. ISBN 978-1-85375-383-1.
- Lodge, David (1981). Working with Structuralism: Essays and Reviews on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature. Boston: Routledge & K. ISBN 0-7100-0658-6.
- Ganz, Richard L. Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative, 1993, 1st edition, Crossway Books, ISBN 978-0-89107-734-3.