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Psychology’s Third Most Misunderstood Concept?

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In an earlier post, I offered my nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept: negative reinforcement (which is not a punishing, but a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking ibuprofen leads to relief from a headache). 

Second place on the most-misunderstood list went to heritability. Students often wrongly think that if intelligence is 50 percent heritable then “half of our intelligence is due to our genes.” Actually, 50 percent heritability would mean that, within the population studied, half of the variation among individuals is attributable to genes.

Now my bronze medal award in the most-misunderstood competition: short-term memory. The misuse of the word appeared repeatedly in an otherwise excellent talk I recently heard on care for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. For example, we were told that “They often have good long-term memory for their earlier life, but have lost their short-term memory for what they did yesterday.”

The presenter, in very good company, didn’t understand that psychologists define short-term memory as the seconds-long memory of, for example, the phone number we’re about to enter in our phone, or of an experience we’ve just had and are processing for long-term storage. The dementia-related memory problem described was not the result of short-term memory loss. Rather, it demonstrated an inability to transfer short-term memories into long-term storage, from which the person could retrieve the experience an hour or a day later. (Our memory of yesterday is a long-term memory.)

Negative reinforcement, heritability, and short-term memory are my gold, silver, and bronze medal winners among psychology’s popularly misunderstood concepts. Perhaps you have other nominees from your experience?

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This reminds me of a TV advertisement for a supplement that is supposed to improve memory.  At least one of the TV spots specifies that it improves 'short term memory'.  Since few people would know the definition of short term memory used in memory studies, it could be considered misleading.

About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.