Psychology and Sociology Terms for the MCAT

Here are the main psychology and sociology terms for the MCAT. To get the entire list, download it here for free!


Download the entire list of psychology and sociology terms! It is 53 pages long and completely free! This represents only about half of the terms we compiled. I made a 130 on the Psychology/Sociology section using this list. Download for free.


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Using the full list I was able to get in the 96th percentile for Psychology/Sociology and make a 130. The full list is free and can be downloaded as a free member of the site. Download the full list now.





Psychology and Sociology Terms:

Social desirability bias – The tendency of survey respondents to answer questions in a manner that looks favorably for others. This can result in an over-reporting of good answers and an under-reporting of bad answers.


Selection bias – The bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups, or data for analysis in such a way that randomization is not achieved. This ensures that the sample is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.


Causation bias – The tendency to assume a cause and effect relationship


Projection bias – When we assume other people share the same beliefs we do


False consensus bias – When we assume everyone else agrees with what we do, even if they don’t.


Subject bias – When a subject intentionally or unintentionally reports distorted measurements


Observer bias – When an observer intentionally or unintentionally reports distorted measurements


Primacy bias – First impressions are important. Emphasis on information that reinforces first impression.


Recency bias – People place emphasis on your most recent actions/performances


Past in present discrimination – Even if discrimination done in the past is no longer allowed, it can still have an effect on people in the present.


Homophily – The tendency for people to choose relationships with other people who have similar attributes.


Kin group – People related by blood or marriage


Exogamy – Marrying outside of one’s community


Endogamy- Marrying within a particular group


Matrilineal descent – Preference for maternal relations in a kin group


Motion parallax – Objects farther away appear to move slowly while objects closer appear to move faster


Social potency trait – The degree to which someone takes on leadership roles in social situations


Intersectionality – The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, gender, and class. Often regarded as creating overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage.


Labeling theory – Labeling people may influence and shape their self identity and behavior. States that people’s self-identity and behavior is shaped by the terms used to describe them. This theory is often associated with the self-fulfilling prophecy.


Craving – A strong desire to ingest a drug or consume a substance.


Dependency ratio – The portion of dependents in a population. Dependents are people who are unable to work. This includes people who are under the age of 15 or older than 65. The ratio is: (age 14 and lower + age 64 and higher / people age 15-65)


Disengagement theory – Claims that it is natural and acceptable for older adults to withdraw from society. Aging results in decreased interaction or disengagement between the aging person and to the society he/she belongs.


Life course perspective – A multidisciplinary approach to understanding an individual’s mental, physical and social health. Done by analyzing people’s lives through social, structural, and cultural contexts.
Life course theory – Aging is a social, biological, and psychological process that begins from birth until death.


Social selection hypothesis – States that people tend to select environments in which there are people similar to themselves.


Social gradient in health – Refers to the fact that inequalities in population health statuses relate to inequalities in individual social status.


Urban renewal- Revamping old parts of cities to become better. Can lead to gentrification.


Rural rebound – People who are getting sick of cities and moving back to the country side.


World systems theory – World is composed of units. CORE (western Europe, US), periphery (Latin america, Africa), semi periphery (India, brazil).


Dependency theory – Periphery countries export resources to core countries, and don’t have means to develop themselves.


Hyperglobalist perspective – Countries are becoming interdependent. The new age of human history.


Skeptical perspective – Third world countries aren’t being integrated into the global economy with same benefits.


Transformationalist perspective – National governments are changing with new world order forming


Mass society theory – People who are isolated are more susceptible to the appeals of extreme movements.


Culture lag – The time it takes a culture catch up with technological advancements. Can result in social problems.


Gatekeeping – The process by which a small number of people or businesses control what is presented to the media.


Shaping – A type of operant conditioning where successive approximations of the desired behavior are reinforced in order to gradually achieve the desired behavior.


Sanctions – Rewards and punishments that are in accord with or against norms.


Formal norms – Written down rules that carry punishments. Ex. Laws


Informal norms – Generally understood but do no carry punishments if violated


Mere exposure effect – People prefer repeated exposure to the same stimuli. Familiarity breeds fondness.


Frustration-aggression principle – When blocked from achieving a goal, frustration can lead to anger which can lead to aggression


Learning-performance distinction – Learning and performing are two different things. The learning of a skill does not necessarily require the practicing of a skill (performance).


Compliance – Situation where people do behavior to get reward or avoid punishment. Will go along with behavior without questioning why. Compliance goes away once reward/punishments are removed


Identification – When people act or dress a certain way to be like someone they respect. Will do this as long as they continue to have respect for that individual.


Cyclothymic disorder – Similar to bipolar disorder but involves less extreme highs and lows.


Vicarious emotions –  Feeling the emotions of others as if they are your own


Linguistic relativity (Whorfian hypothesis) – The structure of one’s language affects its speaker’s world view or cognition.


Place theory – A theory on hearing. States that our perception of hearing depends on where frequency produces vibrations along the basilar membrane.


Context effect – Describes how the context of a stimulus can affect how someone perceives the stimulus


Moderation – A model where another variable moderates the direction or strength of the relationship between an independent variable and a dependent variable.


Mediation – A model where the independent variable has an effect on the mediator variable which has an effect on the dependent variable. In mediation; Independent variable à mediator variable (the variable which is mediating) à dependent variable


Emile Durkheim- Focuses on functionalism, which is the interdependence of social parts that contribute to society’s stability and maintaining social order. Caring about social cohesion and dynamic equilibrium between different social institutions.


George Herbert Mead- Pioneer of symbolic interactionism. Which focuses on the small-scale interactions between people.


George Herbert’s “Me” – Our social self. How we believe society sees us


George Herbert’s “I” – Our personal response to what society thinks


Ludwig Gumplowicz – States that society is shaped by war and conquest, and that cultural and ethnic conflicts lead to certain groups becoming dominant over other groups.


Solomon Asch- Conducted the three line experiment. This experiment focused on peer pressure and conformity.


Stanley Milgram- Conducted the electric shock experiments. These focused on obedience, where a person yields to an authority figure.


Ivan Pavlov – Developed classical conditioning. Conducted the famous Pavlov dog experiments with the bell.


B.F Skinner – Developed operant conditioning. Conducted experiments with the Skinner box to learn about how reinforcements and punishments shaped behavior.


Philip Zimbardo – Conducted the famous prison experiments which focused on the power of role playing on behavior.


Albert Bandura – Focused on social learning theory and observational learning.


Carl Jung – Carl Jung developed the idea of the collective unconscious, introversion, and extroversion. Believed in repressed memories as well as future aspirations to be the source of behavior.


Collective unconscious- The part of the unconscious mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind.


Erving Goffman – Developed the concept of the dramaturgical approach to social situations.


Gestalt psychology: Explain how we perceive things the way we do. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt principles feature top-down processing.


Gestalt principles: The law of similarity, the law of closure, the law of continuation, the law of proximity, the law of figure and ground, the law of Pragnaz


The law of similarity- Items that look similar are grouped together. Ex. A bunch of squares on top of each other could appear as a line


The law of closure – Our minds fill in missing information to create a complete image. How our mind fills in the gaps.


The law of continuity – Lines are seen as following the smoothest path.


The law of proximity – Objects that are close together in proximity are grouped together.


The law of figure and ground – The eye differentiates between an object from its surrounding. The figure is the object. The surrounding is the ground. It refers to the ability to perceive the main object separate from the background.


The law of Pragnaz – Complex objects are reduced to its simplest terms.


Feature detection – How our brains are able to break down an image into its component “features”. It is the process in which the brain detects specific stimuli of an image such as lines, edges, movement.


Top-down processing – Using previously learned information to aid in information processing. How our brain automatically connects pieces of information together on its own then we interpret the “whole picture”. Think the gestalt principles.


Bottom-up processing – Seeing things as their individual pieces.


Actor-observer bias– The tendency to attribute the behavior of others to individual traits and one’s own behavior to external causes.


Generalized other – Our conceptions of the expectations other people in society have on actions and thoughts. The generalized other represents the common expectations and attitude of society. Any time an actor is tries to imagine what is expected of them, they are taking on the perspective of the generalized other. Coined by George Herbert mead.


Kohlberg’s stages of moral development:


  1. Preconventional stage – Morality is based solely on consequences of behavior (reward and punishment).
    – Morality is externally controlled. Children believe what is right and wrong based off of what authority figures say. The focus is on obedience and punishment. (Young kids.)
  2. Conventional stage – Acceptance of conventional definitions of right and wrong.

– Morality is tied to personal and societal relationships. Still listen to authority figures due to wanting to maintain good relationships and societal order. (Adolescents and adults)

  1. Post-conventional stage – Morality is shaped by abstract ideas and values. (Adults)




Gardener’s theory of intelligence – Theorizes that there are a variety of intelligences that are used in combination to solve problems and perform tasks. These are: Linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body/kinesthetic, and interpersonal.


Game theory – Use of mathematical models to come up with strategies for optimal performance or success in a given situation. The success in the “multiplayer” game relies on also knowing the strategy of the other player when creating one’s own strategy.


Traditional authority – Authority due to tradition, custom, or accepted practice


Spotlight model – A theory of visual attention. States that shifts in attention precede the movement of our eyes.


Charismatic authority – Authority and power through persuasion


Continuity theory – People try to maintain the same basic life structure throughout their lives.


Malthusian theory – Starvation is the inevitable result of population growth.


Drive theory – Created by Sigmund Freud. Describes psychological drives as an instinctual need that has the power of driving the behavior of an individual. Based on the principle that organisms have certain psychological needs that creates a feeling of tension when the need is not met. When a need is met, the drive is reduced and the organism returns to a state of homeostasis and relaxation.


Incentive theory – States that people are motivated by external rewards.


Cognitive theory – People behave based on what they predict will yield the most desirable outcome.


Need based theory – People are motivated by the desire to fulfill unmet needs


Foot-in-the-door phenomenon – People are more likely to agree to larger request if they already agreed to a smaller request


Counterconditioning- It involves the conditioning of an undesired response to a stimulus into a desired response. Removing the current conditioning to a stimuli and replacing it with a new response. This is done by associating reinforcements with the stimulus that normally causes the undesired response. Counterconditioning is used to get rid of unwanted responses.
Secure attachment – Easily turns to parents for comfort and is easily comforted by parents.


Ambivalent attachment – Doesn’t turn to parent for comfort easily and is not easily comforted.


Avoidant attachment – Would not turn to the parent for comfort at all


Anxious attachment – Would not be easily comforted by parents or return to play afterwards


Identification – Identification is the process where a subject assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of another person. In gender identity formation, identification refers to children’s perceptions of selves as subject to the same roles and norms as a parent or other model.


Inclusive fitness – A measure of reproductive success. Depends on the number of offspring an individual has, how well they support their offspring, and how well the offspring support each other.


General adaptation syndrome – The body responds to stressors in three stages: 1) Alarm, 2) Resistance, 3) Exhaustion.

1) Alarm – Body reacts with fight or flight response. Activating sympathetic nervous system. Releasing adrenaline and cortisol.


2) Resistance – Blood glucose levels remain high. Increased HR and BR. Body remains alert.


3) Exhaustion – If stressor continues beyond organism’s capacity then the body resources are exhausted. Leading to potential disease and/or death.



The general adaptation syndrome also states that how people react to stress is similar for many different kinds of stressors.


Appraisal view of stress – People make two appraisals that determine their emotional reaction to an event.


Primary appraisal – Evaluation of a situation for a potential threat. If there is one, a second appraisal will then be made.


Secondary appraisal – Assess personal ability to cope with the threat. If one does not think they can cope with the threat well, they will feel stress more than someone who does believe they can handle the stress.


Signal detection theory – The ability to detect an important stimulus amongst vast amounts of sensory stimulus increases an organism’s ability to survive.


Sensitivity bias – An individual’s tendency toward or against accepting evidence of a signal.


Back region- A setting where a person feels more relaxed and can act more spontaneously and free without worry of how others perceive him. Ex. Alone at home


Conjugal family – A family that is centered around the husband and wife, and not around blood relationships.


Learning theory of language development – Learning is a form of behavior developed through operant conditioning.


Nativist theory of language development – Language is an innate biological instinct, and everyone has the neural cognitive system for learning language. (Noam Chomsky)


Interactionist theory of language development – Interaction between biology and environment. Children are motivated to practice language so they can communicate and socialize with others


Expressive aphasia – The inability to produce speech, but can still understand language. Often due to damage to Broca’s area.


Receptive aphasia – The inability to comprehend language, despite being able to hear it and produce it. Often due to damage to Wernicke’s area.


Fluid intelligence – The ability to think logically without the need for previous knowledge. Typically peaks in young adulthood and then declines.


Crystallized intelligence – The ability to think logically using previously learned knowledge. Typically remains stable throughout life.


Retinal disparity – Each eye provides a slightly different angle of the same object which results in our brain being able to process depth.


Proprioception – Cognitive awareness of balance and position of the body in space.


Gentrification- The process by which upgrading of houses or and neighborhoods results in the influx of wealthier residents. Which in turn raises prices and makes the whole area more expensive and wealthy.


Behaviorist theory –  Focuses on the role of reinforcement and punishment on the shaping of behavior. Behaviors are learned through conditioning.


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