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.