The Problem with Pop Psychology

In today’s fast-paced world, the language we use often reflects the latest trends and ideas. One area where this is particularly noticeable is in the realm of psychology. Terms like “narcissist,” “gaslighting,” and “toxic positivity” have become commonplace in everyday conversations. These terms can be considered pop-psychology terminology. This blog will explore the pitfalls of pop-psychology terminology and why it’s important to approach these concepts with caution and nuance.

What is Pop Psychology?

Pop psychology is a term used to describe the popularization of psychological theories and concepts. It is often found in self-help books, magazines, across social media and TV shows. While pop psychology can be a way to learn about psychology, and describe phenomenon, it is important to be aware of its limitations.

The Problem(s) with Pop Psychology

Oversimplification of Complex Issues

Mental health is a complex area. One of the drawbacks of pop-psychology terminology is the oversimplification of complex psychological issues. Terms used by mental health professionals have specific meaning and happen in the context of diagnosis for treatment.   The process of diagnosis and treatment happens with a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s background, history, and individual circumstances. Oversimplification can lead to misunderstandings and misjudgements. The use of pop psychology terminology in everyday language can label people or behaviours incorrectly. This can lead to people misunderstanding mental health conditions. For example, someone might say that they are “OCD” because they like to keep their house clean. However, OCD is a serious mental health condition that is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. It causes debilitating distress for some sufferers.  Pop psychology terminology can trivialize mental health conditions and may make it difficult for people to get the help they need.

Based on Generalizations

Like oversimplification pop psychology is often based on generalizations. This means that it may not be accurate or applicable to everyone. For example, a pop psychology blog might say that all people with anxiety are afraid of failure. However, this is not true for everyone with anxiety. Some people with anxiety are afraid of public speaking, while others are afraid of heights. Some people are afraid of needles, yet they still live a normal life and have vaccinations.


Oversimplification of complex psychological concepts and generalization of concepts that described specific psychological processes or phenomenon by pop-psychology takes the consumer down misleading paths.  Pop-psychology can lead people to believe there are 12 rules for life; or maybe 7 rules for life – depending on which author you are consuming!

Another example might be articles that imply the key to happiness is to “think positive.” However, this is not always the case, and this oversimplification ignores context. It is very hard to think positively or assess your situation as positive if you live in poverty and are starving!

Misunderstanding Mental Health Conditions

For example, assuming that people with a metal health condition are likely to be violent. The research shows that this is not the case. As researcher Heather Stuart (2003) states:

“Members of the public exaggerate both the strength of the association between mental illness and violence and their own personal risk. Finally, too little is known about the social contextual determinants of violence, but research supports the view the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence.

Assuming that mental health conditions are not treatable or are trivial is also part of misunderstanding that may be promoted by pop-psychology.

Pathologising Everyday Behaviour

Pop-psychology terminology may also have a tendency to pathologise everyday behaviour. When someone uses the term “toxic positivity” to describe a friend’s relentless optimism, it might undermine their positive outlook without understanding the context or underlying reasons for their behaviour. A clean house may be labelled as OCD. Nerves about a job interview becomes pathological anxiety. Nervous about a date becomes social anxiety. Distress about the loss of someone becomes PTSD.

Lack of Precision

In addition, pop-psychology terms often lack precision. Concepts like PTSD are used to describe a specific response to traumatic experiences. This includes a specific way of defining traumatic experiences and specific constellation of responses to traumatic experiences. Using a term like PTSD and trauma too broadly dilutes its significance and may lead to confusion about the actual behaviours involved.

The Importance of Nuance

Mental health is a complex area that is nuanced, using catchy pop-psychology terms can mean we miss a lot. We miss the opportunity for open and honest discussions about emotions, behaviours, and relationships. We fail to recognise that individuals are complex, and their actions may have various motivations and explanations. We potentially miss the opportunity for our own personal growth.

Some of the Negatives

Pop-psychology may make it difficult for people to get the help they need. It has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health. It might discourage people from seeking professional help. It may lead to people self-diagnosis and self-treating, which can be dangerous.

An Anti-Dote?

Perhaps something you can do is to be cautious of your own language in everyday conversation; for many of us, this terminology has become imbedded in our typical transactions, so it may be useful to self-reflect, and decide whether you may be contributing to the simplification of quite serious and complex concepts.

Considering where your information about psychology comes from is important. Is your information from reliable sources? Are the books, blogs, articles, and social media content written by psychologists, with references to the research that supports what they are saying? Are the organizations publishing content you consume on websites and blogs reputable?  Do these organizations have processes that are transparent and accountable; are they invested in psychological research?  

Critical thinking is a great way to avoid some of the negative effects of pop psychology. If the psychological advice that seems too good to be true it probably is.  Remember, pop psychology is not a substitute for professional psychological help. If you are concerned about your mental health, it is important to talk to a qualified professional.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, it’s essential to seek professional guidance. The Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne is a trusted resource for individuals seeking support and therapy services. They use evidence-based therapy to assist people with mental health difficulties. You can book an appointment by contacting them at 03 9077 0122 or through their online booking platform:


Stuart H. (2003). Violence and mental illness: an overview. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 2(2), 121–124.