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Avatar Author 27 Jun 2022

Frequently confused terms in psychology: Important differences you must know

The core understanding of any subject depends on the adequate knowledge of the subject’s key terminologies. Psychology is a vast ocean of mind-bending knowledge and there are terms that one tends to overlook as similar or related just because of common practice.

When someone is upset about something, do we show sympathy or empathy? Say you need mental help; do you consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist? Such questions have crossed your minds more than once and it is crucial to clarify the meaning and differences between important psychological terms for your benefit. In psychology, many terms are confused not only by new students but also by advanced students, psychology instructors, and science journalists. These misunderstandings can impede the learning of other psychological ideas. Many people including on social media do not pay heat to the details while writing about psychology. Therefore, we bring you the most confused or similar-sounding terms in psychology that we often overlook. Here are some important differences you must know:

Psychology v Psychiatry

While both professions share certain educational requirements and practices, however, they are very distinct from one another. Many use the terms psychiatrist and psychologist interchangeably without being familiarised with the subject. Psychology is the study of mind, emotions, and human behaviour, being a philosophical branch of mental health that became an independent discipline in the mid-1800s. Psychologists rely on a variety of therapeutic techniques to help their patients recover from mental ailments and improve their mental health. Psychiatry on the other side is a branch of medicine solely dedicated to diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. While psychiatrists also use psychotherapy to help their clients, they are mainly qualified to prescribe medicines to tackle the biological factors in a person’s mental health. To become a psychologist, you must have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and if necessary, further academics up to the level of a doctoral degree in psychology. When it comes to becoming a psychiatrist, the aspirants need to attend medical school and study subjects like anatomy, biology, neurology, and disease to get the required knowledge to prescribe medicine for mental ailments. In practice, psychiatrists primarily prescribe medications while psychologists rely on talk or behavioral therapy.

Guidance v Counseling

The terms guidance and counseling are often interchangeably used in our daily life. However, technically these two psychological terms have completely different meanings. Guidance is to advise or to give a relevant piece of information to someone who wants to overcome a problem or difficulty. Counseling on the other hand is a piece of professional advice given by a counsellor to his client to help him /her overcome personal or psychological problems. The very nature of providing guidance is preventive and counseling is remedial, focusing on curative development. One of the key differences is that in guidance the decision-making power lies on the person who guides, whereas, in counseling, the decisions are made by the client to be independent of anyone else's help and to have trust in his or her personal resources. In guidance, the person is looking to choose the best alternative but in counseling, the aim is to change the perspective of the person in order for him to find a solution for himself.

Counseling v Psychotherapy

More often than not these two terms are definitely misunderstood and confused not just by laymen but also by many professionals. In simple terms, both methods are used to treat emotional and psychological problems in a human being. Counseling is done by a trained therapist who engages in a one-to-one conversation with an individual or a group allowing you to look deeper into your problems to identify troublesome habits and work on mental health predicaments such as anxiety depression, etc. In other words, counseling is recommended for specific issues or situations that are troubling and need to be worked on. Psychotherapy in contrast aims to explore the past issues that might have contributed to the present-day problems. Psychotherapy generally requires more skill than a simple session of counseling. Such sessions are conducted by trained professionals who not only provide counseling but also have the necessary skills to provide psychotherapy. Even concerning duration, psychotherapy is a longer-term treatment focusing on gaining insight into chronic physical and emotional problems.

Empathy v Sympathy

Probably one of the pivotal aspects to understand in psychology is the difference between empathy and sympathy. It may appear to be a small concept to comprehend but the significance and impact of these terms lie in their distinction. To put it simply, sympathy is being emotionally involved while empathy is being intellectually involved towards a person or a situation. Most authors define empathy as the capacity to appreciate or catch the emotions of others. In practice when you feel empathy you experience the same emotions such as sadness, unhappiness, or distress as is the target of empathy. In contrast, sympathy typically depicts your concern or compassion for the other person. It is nothing but “feeling sorry” for the other person without actually understanding their frame of reference.

Repression v Suppression

Psychological interpretation of the word repression is defined as a defense mechanism constructed by the unconscious that is motivated to forget an unpleasant event or feeling. But when it comes to suppression, it is nothing but a defense mechanism marked by the conscious forgetting of unpleasant material. The catch here is that in repression your conscious self is not aware of employing the defense mechanism while in suppression you deliberately try to forget or not think about painful or unwanted thoughts.

Subconscious v Unconscious

Many of you must be familiar with consciousness and unconsciousness but only some might know the true meaning of the subconscious. Is it similar to the unconscious? Absolutely not. Using the term subconscious instead of the term unconscious is a common and telling mistake. Many define the unconscious as a deeper mental process that happens automatically that the human consciousness cannot access. Examples of unconscious behaviour would be calling a spouse by your ex’s name or using the wrong word for something. Subconscious on the other hand is that part of our mind that is not currently in focal awareness. It can be defined as a barrier that our mind makes but instead of blocking everything it stores the information in the brain for later retrieval. The perfect example of subconscious behaviour is breathing. While unconscious is a process that happens automatically and is not available for introspection, the subconscious is part of our consciousness process but not actively in focal awareness.

Working Memory v Short Term Memory

Memory is again a very key aspect of psychology and is important to know the difference between working memory and short-term memory. Despite the terms being used interchangeably, contemporary cognitive psychologists have differentiated them with a modern perspective. Working memory is a typically interrelated group of systems for the transient storage and manipulation of information. Short-term memory is typically regarded as one specific system within the ambit of working memory that serves as a 'scratchpad' for keeping the memory active for a few seconds before it goes to the next level of processing.

Interested in learning more about psychology? Check out all our blog articles right ( At CounselIndia is India's fastest-growing network of counsellors and psychologists. The objective of CounselIndia is to provide you with practical and simplified psychology courses with psychological support platform. Contact us for any psychology-related query and we will get back to you in < 24 hours>.

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