What words like ‘psycho’ say about you

Using terms like 'psycho' to insult people is revealing about our words may reflect our underlying and enduring attitudes and prejudices, writes Dr Dougal Sutherland

Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters referred to a journalist as a “psycho” in response to being asked a question about New Zealand First funding. Many of us have probably used the same or similar words to attack others in the heat of the moment and afterwards dismissed it as harmless. But does the use of this kind of language reveal something deeper about us and the way we really think?

In the late 1980s, Professor Sik Hung Ng from the University of Otago carried out a scientific experiment looking to understand if the words ‘man’ and ‘his’ could be considered gender neutral and used to refer to people in general or whether they could only be used to refer to males.

At the time, words like ‘chairman’ or ‘fisherman’ were commonly used to refer to anyone doing that type of job, regardless of gender. In what is probably an unsurprising finding for most readers, Professor Ng concluded that, despite their common usage, ‘man/his’ were still thought of as referring to males exclusively – despite the rhetoric, our brains didn’t agree with our excuses.

A recent article by Professor Annemarie Jutel from Victoria University of Wellington noted how many students report being “really anxious” or “stressed out” at exam time, rather than saying they are “nervous”. In the article, Professor Jutel encouraged the use of less catastrophic and medicalised terms for day-to-day feelings. Some disagreed with her point, suggesting she was being pedantic and terms like ‘anxious’ and ‘stressed’ mean the same thing, but do our brains agree?

The study of emotions has shown that correctly identifying the feeling we are having reduces the levels of distress we experience. Using the right words for our emotions helps us manage them more effectively, while using more catastrophic phrasing – ‘depressed’ rather than ‘sad’, for example – can have the opposite effect.

A colleague of mine recently did an experiment with her partner and family of three young children, helping them notice how often they used terms like ‘psycho’ or ‘mental’ when angry or disagreeing with someone. They were surprised by how often these words came out of their mouths – perhaps we use these terms officially associated with mental illness when trying to discredit or belittle someone more often than we realise.

These examples show that the words we use to describe ourselves and others aren’t arbitrary and often reflect what we really think about someone or something. For example, Peters’ use of the term ‘psycho’ may reflect the biases many of us continue to hold about mental health: that it’s something on the fringes, far removed from normality, that we can use to insult someone.

In the face of that kind of attitude, why would one of the almost 50 percent of New Zealanders who will experience psychological distress in their lives feel able to disclose their suffering to others or seek help? We should expect more from our politicians, and from ourselves, and we should consider more closely how our words may reflect our underlying and enduring attitudes and prejudices. 

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