A recently published paper explains how “concept creep” in the field of psychology has reshaped many aspects of modern society.
A mother leaves her son in the car while popping into a store at a strip mall. She is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A high school senior complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher and is suspended for “cyberbullying.” Students at Wellesley start a petition calling for the removal of a statue of a man in his underwear, claiming that the art piece caused them emotional trauma. So many residents of Santa Monica, California, claim to need emotional support animals that the local farmer’s market warns against service dog fraud.
How did American culture arrive at these moments? A new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers as useful a framework for understanding what’s going on as any I’ve seen. In “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Haslam argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,”expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.”
Although critics may hold concept creep responsible for damaging cultural trends, he writes, “such as supposed cultures of fear, therapy, and victimhood, the shifts I present have some positive implications.” Still, he adds, “they also have potentially damaging ramifications for society and psychology that cannot be ignored.”
Two stories illustrate how concept creep can be a force for good or ill.
Story 1: During the 1950s, third graders would climb into their parents’ cars and ride around without seatbelts. When stopping short, fathers and mothers would use their right arms in hopes of keeping their little ones from hitting their heads on the dashboard. These kids lived in houses slathered with lead paint and spent hours in family rooms thick with cigarette smoke. Today, there are laws against letting children ride around without seat belts, lead paint is banned, and there is such a powerful stigma against exposing children to second-hand smoke that far fewer kids suffer from poor health outcomes related to such exposure. Society’s concept of what constituted an unacceptable risk, harm, or trauma expanded for the better.
Story 2: During the 1950s, third graders could walk to school, play alone at the park, or bike 10 minutes to a friend’s house without anyone worrying or objecting, so long as they came home for supper or before the street lights came on. Today, though kidnapping is just as rare, a parent who allows that same behavior is at risk of arrest or even losing custody of their children to their state’s child protective services bureaucracy. Society’s concept of what constituted an unacceptable risk, harm, or trauma expanded for ill. In Hanna Rosin’s words, it “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer.”
Concept Creep and Abuse
How did a working-class mom get arrested, lose her fast food job, and temporarily lose custody of her 9-year-old for letting the child play alone at a nearby park?
The concept of abuse expanded too far.
Classically, psychological investigations recognized two forms of child abuse, physical and sexual, Haslam writes. In more recent decades, however, the concept of abuse has witnessed “horizontal creep” as new forms of abuse were recognized or studied. For example, “emotional abuse” was added as a new subtype of abuse. Neglect, traditionally a separate category, came to be seen as a type of abuse, too.
Meanwhile, the concept of abuse underwent “vertical creep.” That is, the behavior seen as qualifying for a given kind of abuse became steadily less extreme. Some now regard any spanking as physical abuse. Within psychology, “the boundary of neglect is indistinct,” Haslam writes. “As a consequence, the concept of neglect can become over-inclusive, identifying behavior as negligent that is substantially milder or more subtle than other forms of abuse. This is not to deny that some forms of neglect are profoundly damaging, merely to argue that the concept’s boundaries are sufficiently vague and elastic to encompass forms that are not severe.”
Students of philosophy will recall Aristotle’s belief that virtue is a mean state between extremes—for every virtue, there are corresponding vices of both deficiency and excess. That conceit could inform how a society conceives of abuse. Seeing nothing wrong with a parent who verbally berates, mocks, and frightens a 7-year-old, or fails to take her to the doctor, the dentist, or the schoolhouse, merely because there is no physical or sexual abuse, suggests a vice of deficiency.
What Counts As Bullying
How does an honor student engaged in the oldest student pastime, complaining to peers about a teacher, wind up suspended with a “cyberbullying” mark on her record?
“The concept of bullying has spread from its original meaning to encompass a wider range of phenomena,” Haslam writes. “It has expanded horizontally into online behavior, into adult workplaces, and into forms of social exclusion that do not directly target the victim with hurtful actions, as distinct from hurtful omissions.” (For example,being excluded from a group of friends is dubbed bullying.)
Bullying has expanded vertically, too.
“Behavior that is less extreme than prototypical bullying now falls within its bounds,” Haslam observes, adding, “in some circumstances bullying behavior need not be repeated or intentional, and it need not occur in the context of a power imbalance as traditionally conceived.” This “concept creep” might square with our intuitions if, say, a “bullying” college student posted, on one occasion, a “revenge porn” video of a powerful pop star a few years his elder who he dated in high school.
Katherine Evans said she was frustrated with her English teacher for ignoring her pleas for help with assignments and a brusque reproach when she missed class to attend a school blood drive. So Ms. Evans, who was then a high school senior and honor student, logged onto the networking site Facebook and wrote a rant against the teacher. “To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred,” she wrote. Her posting drew a handful of responses, some of which were in support of the teacher and critical of Ms. Evans. “Whatever your reasons for hating her are, they’re probably very immature,” a former student of Ms. Phelps wrote in her defense.
A few days later, Ms. Evans removed the post from her Facebook page and went about the business of preparing for graduation and studying journalism in the fall. But two months after her online venting, Ms. Evans was called into the principal’s office and was told she was being suspended for “cyberbullying,” a blemish on her record that she said she feared could keep her from getting into graduate schools or landing her dream job.
One rant, reasonably mild, one time, by a teen against an adult in a position of authority. By this low standard, I’ve been “cyberbullied” over Twitter and email most days.
Trauma originally referred to a physical injury to the body. In bygone wars, many who experienced what World War I soldiers called “shell shock,” and what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, were denied sympathy, care and treatment for their condition.
Thanks to “concept creep,” today’s veterans are treated better. Meanwhile, the concept of trauma generally, and PTSD particularly, is expanding to include lesser harms.
In recent years, trauma theorists and practitioners have proposed including childbirth, sexual harassment, infidelity, and emotional losses such as abandonment by a spouse or loss or a sudden move or loss of home within that range. These extensions are sometimes justified empirically by research showing that these events can precipitate PTSD symptoms (e.g., Carlson, Smith, & Dalenberg, 2013). Nevertheless, they represent a lowering of the threshold of severity for traumatic events.
A recent definition of trauma produced by the U.S. Government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration exemplifies this lowering:
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
This definition abandons most of the restrictive elements of DSM’s Criterion A.
A traumatic event need not be a discrete event, need not involve serious threats to life or limb, need not be outside normal experience, need not be likely to create marked distress in almost everyone, and need not even produce marked distress in the traumatized person, who must merely experience it as “harmful.” Under this definition the concept of trauma is rendered much broader and more subjective than it was even three decades ago.
Indeed, by the government’s definition, a Wellesley student who saw that statue of a man in his underwear, perceived the event as “emotionally threatening” and experienced “lasting adverse effects” on her “spiritual well-being” is a trauma victim. Since the same designation also encompasses victims of torture and brutal sexual assaults, and people who experience adverse effects as extreme as suicide, an inevitable effect of this “concept creep” is to leave us without language to distinguish classic trauma, even though isolating such cases might be useful or necessary.
Creep in the concept of “mental disorder” has been much debated in elementary education. Are boys displaying normal restlessness in school classrooms being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorders and medicated so that they’re more sedate for teachers?
“Ordinary vicissitudes of childhood now find shelter under the umbrella concept of mental disorder,” Haslam writes, and with regard to the whole range of mental disorders, “recent editions of DSM sometimes loosen the criteria for determining where normality ends and mental disorder begins. This quantitative easing allows milder, less disabling psychological phenomena to qualify as disordered. Sometimes this relaxation of criteria takes the form of recognizing less severe ‘spectrum’ conditions, as with cyclothymia, a less impairing variant of bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome, a less impairing variant of autistic disorder, which has recently been reincorporated in the latter diagnosis, thereby vertically expanding it.”
Once again, alongside potential benefits of “concept creep” are significant pitfalls. Haslam worries, “By misrepresenting normal sadness, worry, and fear as mental disorders, the mental health professions overmedicate, exaggerate the population prevalence of disorder, and deflect resources away from more severe conditions.”
These trends within psychology have influenced the larger culture, and in doing so have raised another concern about “concept creep.” There are suffering people in the world for whom emotional-support animals really do prove vital companions. But the new ethic of never questioning anyone’s subjective assessment of their own psychological needs, in combination with a surfeit of people willing to game any system that allows (say) a beloved pet to accompany them, is unsustainable.
She succeeded in part because she had a letter:
To Whom It May Concern:
RE: Patricia Marx
Ms. Marx has been evaluated for and diagnosed with a mental health disorder as defined in the DSM-5. Her psychological condition affects daily life activities, ability to cope, and maintenance of psychological stability.
It also can influence her physical status.
Ms. Marx has a turtle that provides significant emotional support, and ameliorates the severity of symptoms that affect her daily ability to fulfill her responsibilities and goals. Without the companionship, support, and care-taking activities of her turtle, her mental health and daily living activities are compromised. In my opinion, it is a necessary component of treatment to foster improved psychological adjustment, support functional living activities, her well being, productivity in work and home responsibilities, and amelioration of the severity of psychological issues she experiences in some specific situations to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
She has registered her pet with the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. This letter further supports her pet as an ESA, which entitles her to the rights and benefits legitimized by the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It allows exceptions to housing, and transportation services that otherwise would limit her from being able to be accompanied by her emotional support animal.
The backlash to America’s “ever-increasing sensitivity to harm” is about a lot of diffuse, sometimes contradictory things, but it is partly about an aversion to being scammed.
Prejudice is perhaps the most controversial subject that Haslam tackles, tracing its evolution in the field of social psychology. Classically, “the prejudiced person holds hostile attitudes toward members of an outgroup.” Is that definition sufficient?
Early social psychological researchers began with an understanding of prejudice as blatant bigotry, examining endorsement of hostile and derogatory statements about African Americans, Jews, and others. However, as rates of endorsement of these statements began to wane later in the 20th century, the understanding of prejudice was broadened.
McConaghy (1986) drew a distinction between “old-fashioned” racism, exemplified by endorsement of explicit bigotry, and a subtler and more prevalent “modern” racism. Modern racists, like so-called “symbolic” racists (Sears, Henry, & Kosterman, 2000), do not endorse direct hostility to traditional targets of prejudice but instead denied the continuing existence of racism and expressed opposition to affirmative action policies. It was possible to score high on a questionnaire measure of modern racism, and later sexism, without agreeing with any derogatory evaluations of the target group. Nevertheless, such scores were taken to indicate prejudice because they were conceptualized as revealing tacit negative evaluations and were associated with other indicators of prejudice, such as discriminatory behavior.
Within academia, “concept creep” expanded what counted as prejudice “from direct, expressed antipathy…to inferred antipathy,” and then the concept was expanded in two more ways. “The concept of aversive prejudice (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004) applies to liberally minded people who deny personal prejudice but hold aversions, sometimes unconscious, to other-race people,” Haslam writes. “These aversions are not based on hostile antipathy but on fear, unease, or discomfort.” And the idea of implicit bias—that subconscious attitudes and beliefs could shape actions—entrenched the notion that prejudice included negative racial sentiments held by people even if they were unaware of harboring them.
And the concept of prejudice as understood in the academy would not be complete without mentioning the rise of the controversial microaggressions framework:
…some research implies that prejudice exists at least in part in the eyes of the target. Research on microaggressions (Sue et al., 2007), for example, takes the target’s perceptions of prejudice as clear evidence of its existence: If a target perceives a slight as evidence of prejudice, then it is taken as such, even if the slight is ambiguous and its author denies it.
Of course, many prejudiced acts are unambiguous, target perceptions may tend to be accurate, and denials of prejudice are frequently not credible.
Nevertheless, to count perceived discrimination and ambiguous microaggressions as unqualified instances of prejudice is to subjectivize the concept. In addition to this subjectivity, the concept of microaggression extends the concept of prejudice by encompassing acts of omission and phenomena that reflect anxiety rather than hostility.
Proposed examples include the faltering speech, trembling voice, and mispronunciation of words by anxious White therapists discussing racial issues with minority clients, and “the sheer exclusion of decorations or literature that represents various racial groups” in environments that they inhabit.
The scholarship behind each step traced above has generated too much debate to summarize let alone engage here. But it seems reasonable to presume that, as in every other realm, “concept creep” around prejudice includes both salutary improvements in understanding and expansions that could be perilously excessive.
Large majorities in America believe that there should be a powerful stigma against prejudice, as classically defined. If you’re overtly hostile to members of a racial or ethnic group, I don’t want you in my home or working for my company or living next door. Like most people I know, there is no group for whom I feel more aversion than racists and few political causes that I feel as strongly about as opposing prejudice.
Nor do I object to the academics who study lesser kinds of prejudice.
It’s useful to understand and study the fact that there are people “who deny personal prejudice but hold aversions … not based on hostile antipathy but on fear, unease, or discomfort.” I think that phenomenon is damaging and worthy of remedy.
I’m grateful for the scholars who are studying implicit bias, too.
But it seems like there ought to be clearly distinguishable words and concepts for klansmen and demagogues who deliberately stoke racial anxieties, on the one hand, and college students who take a test that suggests that they have mild, negative associations about a racial group, without harboring any animosity toward people in that group, acting badly toward any members of that group, or advocating for anything but full equality on the other. Those college students may be labeled “prejudiced” or “racist,” but few people will be inclined to exclude them from their homes or their workplaces.
In this telling, “concept creep” exacerbates failures to communicate.
When a concept is stretched to include “milder, subtler, or less extreme phenomena than those to which they referred at an earlier time,” any earlier judgment or consensus about how best to respond to that concept no longer applies.
Why Are So Many Concepts Creeping In the Same Direction?
Concept creep is inevitable and vital if society is to make good use of new information. But why has the direction of concept creep, across so many different concepts, trended toward greater sensitivity to harm as opposed to lesser sensitivity?
One concerns the field of psychology and its incentives. “It could be argued that just as successful species increase their territory, invading and adapting to new habitats, successful concepts and disciplines also expand their range into new semantic niches,” he theorizes. “Concepts that successfully attract the attention of researchers and practitioners are more likely to be applied in new ways and new contexts than those that do not.” The other theory posits an ideological explanation. “Psychology has played a role in the liberal agenda of sensitivity to harm and responsiveness to the harmed,” he writes “and its increased focus on negative phenomena—harms such as abuse, addiction, bullying, mental disorder, prejudice, and trauma—has been symptomatic of the success of that social agenda.”
A third theory occurs to me.
Consider criminality, bullying, and racism. As fights against crime or bullying or racism intensify, crooks, bullies and racists try to hide their misdeeds; enforcers react—if a thief starts “innocently forgetting to pay,” a crackdown on the tactic is needed; if a bully starts kicking his victim under the table rather than punching him in the face, a definition of bullying as “open aggression” is shown to be flawed and insufficient; if racists no longer use racial slurs in public, but persist in using dog whistles, the latter are stigmatized. But efforts to encompass covert bad behavior tend to target increasingly minor acts, and more alarmingly, to rely on opaque or subjective assessments that capture some non-crooks, non-racists, and non-bullies. More innocents are thus searched or arrested or dubbed racists or bullies.
Jonathan Haidt, who believes it has gone too far, offers a fourth theory. “If an increasingly left-leaning academy is staffed by people who are increasingly hostile to conservatives, then we can expect that their concepts will shift, via motivated scholarship, in ways that will help them and their allies (e.g., university administrators) to prosecute and condemn conservatives,” he writes. “We can expect academic concepts to ‘creep’ in ways that increase the number of victims and the damages those victims suffer, and in ways that make it ever harder for anyone to defend themselves against ugly moral charges. Such politically motivated scholarship may sometimes originate in humanities departments rather than in psychology, but it draws heavily on psychological concepts and research, and it feeds back into the six streams of creeping psychological research that Haslam reviewed.”
For liberals who are skeptical of that explanation, he adds:
Suppose that the FBI was traditionally a right-leaning organization, like most law enforcement organizations. Suppose conservatives outnumbered liberals by about three to one from its founding in 1908 through the 1990s.
But suppose that during the administration of George W. Bush the agency began to lean much further to the right. After the 9/11 attacks, the agency’s culture became extremely hostile to liberals and Democrats, who were widely associated with the gravest threats to the nation. By 2012 the ratio of conservatives to liberals was fourteen to one. Do you suppose this transformation might affect the way the FBI did its job, or would you trust the agency’s professionalism to keep politics out of law enforcement?
Might the agency shift its resources toward conservative priorities, such as fighting terrorism and moral decay, while ignoring liberal priorities such as abortion clinic bombings, civil rights infringements, and environmental crimes? And might we begin to see law enforcement concepts creeping to the right, such that more and more citizens fall under suspicion of entitlement cheating, abetting illegal immigration, or subverting American values? Perhaps we’d even see the creation of brand new legal concepts such as “micro-treasons,” defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward the United States of America.”
The Harms of Excessive Concept Creep
However, he adds, there are many reasons to be concerned about excessive sensitivity to harm:
- “by applying concepts of abuse, bullying, and trauma to less severe and clearly defined actions and events, and by increasingly including subjective elements into them, concept creep may release a flood of unjustified accusations and litigation, as well as excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes.”
- “…concept creep can produce a kind of semantic dilution. If a concept expands to encompass less extreme phenomena… then its prototypical meaning is likely to shift… If trauma, for example, ceases to refer exclusively to terrifying events that are outside normal human experience, and is applied to less severe and more prevalent stresses, it will come to be seen in a more benign light.”
- “…by increasing the range of people who are defined as moral patients—people worthy of moral concern, based on their perceived capacity to suffer and be harmed—it risks reducing the range of people who see themselves as capable of moral agency.” There is a tendency “for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence…The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.”
- Expanding mental disorder “can pathologize normal experiences, generate over-diagnosis and over-treatment, and engender a sense of diminished agency.”
While Haslam and Haidt appear to have meaningfully different beliefs about why concept creep arose within academic psychology and spread throughout society, they were in sufficient agreement about its dangers to co-author a Guardian op-ed on the subject.
“Of course young people need to be protected from some kinds of harm, but overprotection is harmful, too, for it causes fragility and hinders the development of resilience,” they wrote. “As Nasim Taleb pointed out in his book Antifragile, muscles need resistance to develop, bones need stress and shock to strengthen and the growing immune system needs to be exposed to pathogens in order to function. Similarly, he noted, children are by nature anti-fragile – they get stronger when they learn to recover from setbacks, failures and challenges to their cherished ideas.”
A university that tries to protect students from words, ideas, and graffiti that they find unpleasant or even disgusting is doing them no favors. It is setting them up for greater suffering and failure when they leave the university and enter the workplace. Tragically, the very students who most need the strength to face later discrimination are the ones rendered weakest by victimhood culture on campus.
The unrest on university campuses has not just been caused by creeping concepts. Black and Muslim students, in particular, must endure ignorant questions and other indignities that other students rarely face. Diversity is difficult, and more must be done to make all feel welcome on campus. But universities should be careful not encourage victimhood culture, looping effects and greater fragility.
While I agree with the potential harms identified by Haslam and Haidt, I am less inclined than they are to see concept creep and increased, sometimes excessive sensitivity to harm as exclusively liberal phenomena. Within U.S. police departments, there are many examples of creep in what constitutes probable cause, as illustrated by the thousands of black and brown men thrown against walls and frisked in New York City after cops said that they made “furtive movements.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration and many Americans grew increasingly sensitive to harms, real and imagined, from terrorism. Bill Maher was fired from his show, Politically Incorrect, for saying that the al-Qaeda hijackers who carried out the suicide mission were not cowardly. Dick Cheney declared, “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” The invasion of Iraq was predicated, in part, on the idea that 9/11 “changed everything,” and that America could no longer afford to contain Saddam Hussein. The drone war illustrates creep in what is said to constitute an “imminent” threat.
Before 9/11, the notion of torturing prisoners was verboten. After the Bush Administration’s torture was made public, popular debate focused on mythical “ticking time bomb” scenarios, in which a whole city would be obliterated but for torture. Now Donald Trump suggests that torture should be used more generally against terrorists. Torture is, as well, an instance in which people within the field of psychology pushed concept creep in the direction of less sensitivity to harm, as the profession became complicit in the Bush Administration’s effort to get away with “enhanced interrogations.”
Concept creep can be necessary or needless. It can align concepts more or less closely with underlying realities. It can change society for better or worse. Yet many who push for more sensitivy to harm seem unaware of how oversensitivty can do harm. The insight that concept creep spurs progress and problems alike is important, especially for those averse to doing harm in the name of sensitivity to harm. If you’ve got dissents or insights to add on this subject, email firstname.lastname@example.org