The Concept of Concept Creep

The sensitivity to harm is driving the expansion of many concepts.

Posted Jan 04, 2017

Jacob is an active six year old who is often jumping up out of his seat, knocking things over, and impulsively shouting out answers in his first grade class. Sarah is a 20 year old college student who is upset about her grades and her lack of friends and often feels lonely and down. Andrea is a relaxed parent who lets her seven year old son play in the woods by himself unsupervised. Consider the following: Does Jacob have ADHD or is he just energetic and impulsive? Does Sarah have a mental disorder called depression or is she just sad because life is not going her way? Is Andrea a neglectful parent who should be monitored by social services?

As implied by these questions, psychological concepts often grow to expand far beyond their original meaning. As such, let me offer a brief word about concepts in general. Concepts are a core feature of human language, as we use them to divide and categorize the world and generate meaning. Although some concepts, such as the number two, are crisply defined by logic, most concepts have fuzzy boundaries that are defined by examples and resemblances. Consider, for example, the concept of a chair. Although there are prototypes that serve as classic exemplars, the boundaries of what constitutes a chair is not defined by pure logic, but by a sort of family resemblance. This makes the edges of the concept a fuzzy gray, rather than a clear yes or a no. For example, is a loveseat a chair? A stool? What about a stepstool that someone is sitting on? This means that many concepts are fluid. It also means that most concepts are context dependent. Consider that a third string NFL player might be called “lousy” in the context of the NFL—even though he has incredible talent. It also means concepts can morph over time (e.g., think of how “that’s bad” came to mean “that’s badass”). So concepts are not static and lots of things influence how concepts are used and defined. And one powerful force that influences concepts is how they are defined and researched by professional groups.

With this brief background, let’s return to our opening questions about how to categorize Jacob, Sarah, and Andrea. The first thing to notice is that ADHD, depression, and parental neglect are concepts that are explored and heavily influenced by psychology and related disciplines. A second element to note is that each of the concepts seems to have broadened in meaning over the years. What was energetic and rambunctious is now ADHD; what was discouraged and lonely is now depression; and what might have been considered letting kids be kids can now be labeled, at least in some contexts, parental neglect.

The insight that these concepts have all shifted in the same direction of expansion suggests that there might be a social force driving how these and similar concepts are being altered. What might that be? In one of the most important psychological articles from 2016, Nick Haslam introduces the idea of “concept creep” to help understand this expansion. He reviews six key concepts in psychology: 1) Abuse/neglect; 2) Bullying; 3) Trauma; 4) Mental Disorder; 5) Addiction; and 6) Prejudice. He offers a case study of each word, its historical and current usage, as well as debates about boundaries around the concept. He demonstrates conclusively that each of the six the words have undergone significant semantic shifts, such that all six have been extended both horizontally (so as to include novel phenomena that were historically outside the boundary) and vertically (so as to include increasingly minor cases).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

What is driving this definitional expanse? There are likely several influences. One is knowledge and education. For example, as knowledge about abuse or mental disorders increases, it follows that its use will increase and its boundaries will expand somewhat. Although this is likely a factor, Haslam argues that this is not the primary mover. Instead, he points to the presence of an implicit liberal moral agenda and worldview, which drives an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.

In such a cultural context, the combination of psychological knowledge and psychology’s professional mission to reduce harm and offer assistance to victims of misfortune or marginalization works to drive the expanse of these concepts through the process of a self-fulfilling investment and justification. One way to see how is to consider what it would look if psychologists were operating in the reverse; that is, by trying to shrink these concepts vertically or horizontally. Try to imagine psychologists actively working to minimizing the concept of bullying, abuse, mental disorders, prejudice, and the like. Such psychologists would argue that only the extreme, prototype cases are “real," that the amount of harm associated with them is minimal or unclear, and that there is not much one can do about them anyway. To the extent that these claims are endorsed, the entire justification for the institution of psychology as a promoter of human well-being becomes suspect. This thought experiment shows how the institution of psychology is, in many ways, organized to foster the growth of these concepts.  

I am not claiming that this is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I believe there is much good that has come from these concepts receiving attention. Indeed, the societal changes associated with each of the six concepts that Haslam reviews require their own analysis in terms of harms and benefits. However, thanks to Halsam’s work, we can now reflect on some of the implications of concept creep in general. Here are some key points from my perspective:

1) In real life, facts and values are intertwined. This is something that psychology, with its strong emphasis on empiricism, often overlooks. There is often an implicit and sometimes an explicit justification that, because we are a science, we deal in facts and values come later. Concept creep shows that this is incomplete at best and blatantly misguided at worst.

2) Because facts and values are intertwined, is crucial to be clear about what are our values are. We need large scale discussion about values and the good life. Harm reduction is important, but it is not a foundation for value based living. Here is a blog on my values.

3) Psychologists must be aware and reflective of how concepts are used by the public and how they may function to transform public consciousness. One technical approach to understanding this is called “double hermeneutic” (described here in the context of ADHD), which refers to how the ideas generated by those in the human/social sciences function to alter society and human consciousness. Psychologists and other social scientists need more education of these kinds of frames.

4) Although much good can come from identifying and helping victims and marginalized individuals, we must recognize that there are consequences and limits. Given that the discipline of psychology is dominated by liberals and helping, nurturing professionals, it is organized in a way that it potentially promotes a culture of victimization, which is something that requires significant reflection and concern. This is why attention to diverse political perspectives is important, as articulated by folks like Jonathan Haidt and other scholars at the heterodox academy.

The bottom line is that the enterprise of human psychology is inevitably as much about constructing a cultural reality as it is about discovering one, and this is something that all psychologists should be deeply aware of. This is why a clear meta-theoretical view and a commitment to core human values are so central for the field.

References

Haslam, N. (2016). “Concept creep: Psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology.” Psychological Inquiry, 27, p. 1-17

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