Some buzzwords that are commonly heard in psychobabble have come into widespread use in business management, motivational seminars, self-help, folk psychology, and popular psychology.
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, often referring to unfalsifiable ideas. Science demands the testing of falsifiable ideas in experiments whose results are repeatable. In the field of psychology, the scientific method is some times replaced by inductive reasoning. The ideas obtained from such reasoning are not strictly speaking part of psychology itself, since they lack scientific grounding.
Psychobabble was defined by the writer who coined the word, R.D. Rosen, as
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.
The word itself came into popular use after his 1977 publication of Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling.
Rosen coined the word in 1975 in a book review for The Boston Phoenix, then featured it in a cover story for the magazine New Times 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.
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 (DSM) 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. Misuse or misapplication of the DSM can be seen when a person "diagnoses" themselves or others based on behaviors, thoughts or feelings that are well within the range of normal variability in healthy individuals. For example, someone who is very organized or who has exceptional attention to detail may be described as being OCD (having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Quite to the contrary, these can be highly advantageous personality traits and do not, in and of themselves, represent a disorder. Furthermore, exhibiting some personality traits that are similar to a bona fide disorder, does not represent a mild form of the disorder, but rather no disorder at all. These personality traits do not rise to the level of a disorder until they significantly impair a person's functioning.
Psychobabble may also take the form of equivocation, where a word is used inconsistently with regard to its definition. For example, in 2013 writer Deepak Chopra drew various criticism by his assertion that "consciousness may exist in photons" and "The Gaia hypothesis says nature does have a mind, that the globe is conscious." Here, Chopra enjoys the notoriety of the term "consciousness" as it is used variously in psychology, medicine and philosophy, lending a sense of legitimacy and academicality to his assertions. However, he uses the term in a way that is inconsistent with its definitions in these various fields. This is to say that there is no mechanism known or proposed by which these entities could perceive the world or their own existence, and further is no mechanism known or proposed by which they could make this perception known or observable.
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 his collection of critical essays, Working with Structuralism (1981), the British scholar and novelist David Lodge gives a structural analysis of the language used in the novel and notes that McFadden endorsed the use of the term.
In 2010, Theodore Dalrymple defined psychobabble as "the means by which people talk about themselves without revealing anything."
- Glittering generality