Psychology Terminology

Updated: May 8, 2021

This is a reference page filled with terms used in psychology.


Behaviour: actions done by a living organism, such as a human. Examples: breathing (involuntary behaviour), speaking to a friend (social behaviour), and running to the bus (voluntary behaviour).

Behaviourism: the research and theory of animal and human behaviour and learning. This includes conditioning (see below).

Biofeedback: a method to connect body functions with conscious control.

Central Nervous System: the brain and spinal chord.

Cognitive: anything relating to attention, thinking, perceiving, and remembering. Cognitive Psychology is the study of these processes.

Cognitive dissonance: the stress we experience when our actions and values do not line up. This is usually followed by "justification" or "rationalization". Example: you buy some junk food after a hard day and feel uncomfortable because you know it isn't good for you. You tell yourself "I went for a jog yesterday and it's only this one time. I deserve it."

Complex: a group or “knot” of related emotions, images, memories, and thoughts centred around a common theme. Jung described complexes as having an archetype at their core, like a star around which the elements are bound gravitationally. Complexes can be activated or "constellated" by our day-to-day experiences, causing strong feelings and influencing behaviour. Examples include parent complexes (father, mother), martyr complex, guilt complex, inferiority complex, Oedipus or Elektra complexes.

Conditioning: the training of specific responses using reinforcement (reward and punishment). Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are both forms of conditioning.

Constellation: when we have an experience that "activates" a complex, you can say the complex has been constellated. An example might be that you meet a person and fall in love right away; you hardly know them yet you feel crazy in love. Meeting this person (the experience/stimulus) has constellated a complex (likely the Anima/Animus), resulting in all the bound up emotions, images, memories, and thoughts becoming activated. Remaining consciously aware and rational will be difficult, indeed!

Culture: the set of arts, beliefs, cuisine, customs, dress, habits, history, important persons, knowledge, language, laws, norms for behaviour, stories, and more which make up the unique character of a society. Cultural Psychology is the study of how cultures shape the minds and personalities of people within a particular culture. Cross-Cultural Psychology is the study of how human behaviour and mental processes are alike and differ in diverse cultures.

Developmental: anything relating to change and growth. Developmental Psychology is the study of the way humans grow and change in their lives. Developmental Science also includes cognitive neuroscience in its domain.

Extraversion & Introversion: Extraversion is associated with interest in the external world, influence, and social interaction. Introversion is associated with interest in the inner world, personal convictions and decisions, and reflection. People naturally possess both extraverted and introverted attitudes and differ in the degree to which they “lean” one way or the other. A person whom we call "introverted" has a personality which favours an introverted attitude toward life; they are likely to be less social, more reflective, and more defensive of their own beliefs or opinions than someone we call "extroverted." A person whom we call "extroverted" has a personality which favours an extroverted attitude toward life; they are likely to be more social, less reflective, and are flexible in beliefs or opinions, sometimes depending on the social context and intent to influence others. Neither extroversion nor introversion, nor their associated personality types, are inherently good nor bad. They are ways of adapting to the demands of life. They are ways of being.

Humanistic: anything relating to humans as unique individuals. Humanistic psychology is an approach in psychology which emphasizes this view. (Concepts in humanistic psychology often centre on human striving to become oneself, such as “self-actualization”.)

Memory: the ability of the brain and/or mind to store and recall experiences and information. There are many forms of memory:

  • Topographical memory: the memory for places and spaces and the ability to orient oneself, as in using a map. People with excellent topographical memory do not get lost easily.

  • Declarative or Explicit Memory: the memory which can be stated out loud. There are many forms of declarative or explicit memory.

  • Episodic memory: the memory for events and experiences that can be stated out loud. People with excellent episodic memory can recall the details - such as emotion, images, people, place, time, and so on - with clarity. A form of episodic memory is flashbulb memory, which is the episodic memory of events that are emotional and unique. For example, I can remember the look on my mother's face when she told me about the September 11 Attacks. Another form of episodic memory is autobiographical memory, which is the memory of the events in one's own life.

  • Semantic Memory: the memory for concepts, facts, ideas, meanings, or world knowledge.

  • Visual Memory: the memory for images, which may be stored and recalled in one's imagination.

  • Procedural or Implicit Memory: the memory which is not stored consciously and may be difficult or impossible to state out loud. Put simply, it is the memory for how to do something. Examples: riding a skateboard, standing upright, tying your shoes.

Moral: anything concerned with determining right and wrong, good and bad, usually in terms of behaviour. Moral psychology is the study of attitudes, beliefs, emotions, motivations, thinking, values and so on all with regards to morality.

Motivation: the force that drives a human towards certain actions. Usually, we are motivated to act towards satisfying our needs and desires, and away from dangerous or harmful things.

Neuropsychology: the study of the relationship between brain, nervous system, behaviour, and the mind.

Personality: the consistent patterns of behaviour, feeling, motivation, perception, and thinking that make up the unique character of a person. Personality psychology is the study of personality, what influences it, and its differences between people.

Psychoanalysis: a theory and form of therapy which focuses on the unconscious mind, first developed by Freud.

Psychometry: the measurement of psychological variables (example: intelligence testing).

Psycholinguistics: the study of the relationship between language, behaviour, and the mind.

Psychotherapy: a way of helping people to change toward greater well-being through the use of psychological principles based in practice and research. There are many definitions of psychotherapy and some overlap with the term “Counselling.”

Self-efficacy: the belief we have in our own ability to succeed in specific situations.

Social: anything relating to the interactions between humans. Social psychology is the study of the ways that ways that humans interact with one another.

Stimulus: an event or an object which stimulates the senses and brings about a response in a living organism, such as a human. Example: the smell of a cooked lasagne (stimulus) causes my stomach to growl and my mouth to salivate (response).

Synchronicity: meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved. (Learn more about synchronicity.)

Temperament: differences in behaviour and the mind which are based in biology, rather than experience.

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