Concept Creep

I am currently reading The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book based upon their influential Atlantic essay from 2015. It is a fascinating book, but I want to focus in this post on a reference in the book to a 2016 paper by Nick Haslam of Melbourne University. I wish I had read this paper before now because it would have informed my forays into discussions about psychological conditions.

Haslam makes the case for ‘concept creep’. He outlines six negative ‘human kinds’ or concepts that may be applied to people: abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice. These are necessarily fluid because they are clearly socially constructed (although Haslam does not use this term).

In each case, Haslam demonstrates how the concept has undergone both a ‘vertical’ and a ‘horizontal’ expansion. A horizontal expansion is when the term comes to apply to new, qualitatively different examples and a vertical expansion is when it comes to apply to milder, less severe examples than was originally the case. For instance, trauma initially involved physical injury before the term expanded to encompass a distressing event outside the range of usual human experience such as being tortured or participating in a war. This definition explicitly excluded events that are distressing but within normal human experience such as suffering bereavement. Later understandings of trauma have now come to encompass these events. So we see a horizontal shift from physical wounding to psychological wounding and then a vertical shift to encompass more classes of psychological distress.

Bullying used to have to involve children and be repeated. Now it can involved adults in the workplace and can be a single incident. Haslam goes on to demonstrate analogous shifts in the other human kinds. It is also important to note that many of these shifts have involved a movement from objective appraisals or appraisals of intent to subjective ones. Judgements of bullying and prejudice are now based more on the perceptions of those on the receiving end than on objective measures or assessments of the intent of the perpetrator.

Haslam remarks that others have noticed this concept creep within specific domains and have tended to put forward explanations that sit within those domains. For instance, some have argued that ‘political correctness’ might be the cause of the expanding definition of prejudice. Yet, given that an almost identical process of conceptual creep is occurring across these quite different human kinds, it seems reasonable to seek an overarching explanation.

After discarding a few possible explanations, Haslam alights on two. The first is a ‘Darwinian’ process that sees successful concepts colonise new territories. Scholars noticing the power of the bullying literature of the 1970s, for instance, may, in a crowded marketplace for ideas, have sought to apply it to new situations in order to make a novel contribution to the field. Given that psychological disciplines tend to focus on negative concepts, this could account for why it is negative concepts that have undergone such as shift. This seems like an attractive model for understanding the phenomenon.

Haslam also notes Steven Pinker’s argument that there has been a decline in all forms of violence over time and that this has corresponded to an ever increasing sensitivity to harm. All of these human kinds represent forms of harm and so this could explain the expanded definitions.

Concept creep is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. A greater sensitivity to harm may enable us to enjoy a safer world. We no longer have to tolerate ‘office politics’ because we can identify it as bullying and seek to eradicate it. However, Haslam notes some potential negative effects of concept creep and I am struck by his concerns about human agency:

“A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight. The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.”

We also have to be aware of the way that concept creep will lead to increased rates of incidence. For instance, if we note that the number of diagnoses of a specific mental disorder have increased over the last few decades, we should not conclude that this has some external cause. The most obvious explanation is that we have simply applied this diagnosis to cases that it would not have been applied to in the past.

There are clear implications of Haslam’s analysis for education because we use these human kinds as part of our discussion. If the definitions are not stable then we need to know.


10 thoughts on “Concept Creep

  1. Sam Harris has done a brilliant podcast with Jonathan Haidt. Well worth a listen.

    Sometime I’m critical of Greg’s blogs as I feel he creates straw men; making a conflict or issue where there is not really a conflict or issue.

    This idea of “concept creep” is no straw man. It is real.

    Here is a link to a twitter conversation I happened across after listening to the above podcast.

    In it some student are saying they have been “traumatized” by readings set by their lecturers.
    “White academics can’t, can’t understand the fury and the lightning we feel when reading the trauma they’ve assigned us to read”

    Silly me blurted into the discussion uninvited after a couple of wines with “So if I find something unpleasant I shouldn’t have to study it? I should always be able to opt out?”

    This was followed by threats to block me and torrents of abuse, many referring to my “white privilege” and suggesting that I cannot be part of this debate.

    How have we gone from Rosa Parks’ bravery in risking physical harm and arrest when she walked up and sat in the front of the segregated bus to “I can’t read “Heart of Darkness” because it may trigger trauma in me?

    Even the language is concept crept. “Trauma Trigger “. Trigger is part of a gun. Guns kills people. Books don’t kill people.
    trauma definition:
    1. A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
    2.MEDICINE: physical injury.

    The civil rights activists in Mississippi in the 60’s risked trauma. Reading books at Uni is a very different activity. I don’t see the word trauma being applicable.

    I object to people using terms like “snowflakes” and “leftist tears” but when individuals chose to vilify anyone or anything that may cause them offense, public discourse suffers. I don’t think anyone should deliberately set out to offend others but by teaching students that they are always the victim if they find something offensive, we are making them into unique and fragile entities that will suffer high levels of stress and anxiety.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    I think “creep” is a good term to become familiar with. It can apply not only to expansion of definitions of conditions but also to growth of people studying the fields involved AND personnel that are being hired to deal with these expanded conditions.

    A newspaper article in our Canadian newspaper today has this headline: “Emotional wellness just as important as academics in today’s classroom”. It reports that within two years — 2013 -2015 — the incidence of Gr 7-12 students reporting psychological distress jumped from 24 to 34 per cent!

    Of course the call then is for more staff and programs to deal with this. Not only for students is stress increasing but for teachers as well! Furthermore, there is noted another factor — “anxiety among teachers can be passed straight to students”.

    Well, the report goes on to say that a pilot for 100 classrooms will be shortly rolled out in different schools in Canada. More experiments! Will informed consent be in the picture?

    Frankly, I think the anxiety of parents will also greatly increase. They are already concerned about the growth of social-emotional-learning (SEL) taking away time from academics.

  3. kisveinoam says:

    Concept creep is a neat idea that places an academic and theoretical framework around the everyday experience of hyperbolic language. We live in a world where no-one gets a common cold any more: it’s always the flu. Headaches are things of the past: but unfortunately, everyone gets frequent migraines. There is no negative experience that isn’t a nightmare. There’s inevitably nothing worse than something mildly vexing or faintly irritating. Nothing disliked isn’t absolutely hated. And who couldn’t kill a person who does something that slightly annoys us?

  4. I worry that concept creep takes away our individuality. Our experiences, and more importantly our achievements are no longer our own, they are part of some mental condition we have. At the extreme diagnosing the dead with conditions that affected their achievements mean no-one ever did anything worthwhile themselves. It is dehumanising and dangerous. As to the cult of victimhood, this manages to divide and conquer groups which should be cohesive.

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