Separated by a common language. 1. Psychological jargon

And now for something completely different: this is my first foray into psych-blogging. (Rotten tomatoes are welcome if you agree to pay the dry cleaner’s bill :-))

Once concepts from a technical field start entering the popular consciousness, some of the professional jargon terms for them also become common currency. As often happens when words are adopted across linguistic borders, the words undergo subtle shifts in meaning, and sometimes become outright ‘false friends’. Physicists, chemists, and engineers, for example, can sometimes be driven up the wall by this 🙂

In the age of ‘pop psychology’, people start throwing around terms like ‘narcissist’, ‘introvert’, ‘bipolar’, ‘borderline’,… without ever bothering to learn what they really mean. Let me give just two examples I ran across recently. (Disclaimer: biographical details of living persons referred to below have been subtly altered in order to protect their anonymity.)

(a) “Narcissist”. ‘Karen’ is a graphic artist of considerable talent who has gathered some acclaim in exhibitions. (Her husband is an intellectual property lawyer making a very high income, so she need not work for a living.) She remarked off-hand that she is a ‘narcissist’, as, she says, ‘all I really care about is my art’.
Now I am not a psychologist, but I’ve had the extremely dubious pleasure of dealing with a few subclinical NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) cases, and know what the real thing looks like. I know ‘Karen’ quite well — she is a caring person with not a narcissistic bone in her body.
Grossly oversimplifying, a narcissist lives for “narcissistic supply” (admiration, adoration, especially favorable treatment), and sees other human beings as either sources of, or competitors for, narcissistic supply — and little if anything else.
What ‘Karen’ meant to say is that her art is the central thing in her life. I know lots of very driven professionals, especially in the creative professions and in research academia, who are wired that way — in fact, in these professions, it’s arguably a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for success. While sometimes such people can be maddeningly self-centered and lacking in empathy, narcissistic supply is rarely what motivates them — and if it is, they rarely are able to sustain the long ‘marathons’ of effort required to hone their talents and to achieve perfection in their art.

(b) [Hat tip: Pink Freud] ‘Extrovert’ vs. ‘Introvert’. In everyday parlance, ‘extrovert’ is used as a synonym for ‘gregarious’, ‘outgoing’, … and ‘introvert’ as a synonym for ‘shy’, ‘withdrawn’,…
In psychological lingo, however, ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ have very different meanings. Again grossly oversimplifying, an ‘extrovert’ is somebody who seeks external validation, while an introvert finds validation by living up to his/her own internal value system.
Imagine ‘Valerie’ who is very outgoing, plays several sports competitively, used to be a cheerleader, is the singer in a Top 40 cover band, etc…. but who is very shy, very unwilling to open up about herself. In common parlance, such a person would be considered introvert, yet in psych terms she is an extrovert.
Imagine on the other hand ‘Daniel’, a molecular biologist who will quite outspokenly tell you his views on any number of controversial subjects, political correctness be damned. Who will happily lecture on his field of expertise in front of 5 or 5,000 people, and try to do a good job regardless of the number — but stopped caring about the applause volume years ago. In common parlance, ‘Daniel’ would be considered an extrovert. Yet, psychologists would consider him an introvert.
Let me offer an analogy. Neither Bach nor Mozart obviously had any inhibition about performing in public or bringing their music to audiences. But Mozart, until near the end of his life, was fundamentally a crowd-pleaser who wrote and performed for public acclaim. J. S. Bach, on the other hand, cared about his own (extremely rigorous) formal standards of composition, about paying tribute to the G-d he so fervently believed in (Bach was a devout Lutheran), and about setting a proper example for his many students. However, while he was too much of a professional not to care about giving the public (and his employers) value for their money, the fact that his contemporaries considered his contrapuntal style of composition ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘behind the times’ left him as cold as the Siberian winter. Mozart was an extrovert, you see, and Bach the quintessential introvert — even though both Bach and Mozart were both gregarious and outspoken men personally.

Addendum: Pi Guy points to an interesting article by Jonathan Rauch: Learning Place Online: Caring For Your Introvert.


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