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What Is… Concept Creep

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In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is concept creep.

The term concept creep was first described by psychologist Nick Haslam in a 2016 paper. He wrote that there’s been semantic expansion (i.e. expanded definitions) of words representing various phenomena, so those words now encompass a lot more things than they used to. In particular, this has been observed with concepts that represent what’s psychologically abnormal, negative, or harmful, leading to a contraction of what’s considered “normal.”

Concept creep can happen in two directions:

  • Horizontally: the concept expands to include phenomena that were previously considered distinct
  • Vertically: less extreme/severe instances become part of the concept

Concept creep isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there may be very good reasons for it; the key is to critically evaluate it rather than just let it happen without paying any attention.

Areas in which concept creep has occurred

In Haslam’s 2016 paper, he presented a number of case studies to demonstrate areas in which concept creep has changed the way society views certain phenomena. An article in The Atlantic expands upon this with a number of other examples. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Abuse

The concept of abuse previously referred to physical and sexual abuse. It’s expanded horizontally to now encompass emotional abuse (both adult-child and adult-adult) and neglect. There’s also been vertical expansion, and things are now being considered neglect that would have been considered perfectly normal a few decades ago. When I was in elementary school, I was allowed to roam pretty freely around the neighbourhood, but in 2014, a South Carolina woman was arrested and temporarily lost parental custody for leaving her 9-year-old daughter on her own in a park.

Bullying

Bullying has expanded horizontally to include cyberbullying and workplace bullying. The original concept of bullying involved the elements of repeated behaviours, intentionality, and a power imbalance; however, it’s expanded vertically to include single instances of behaviour, inadvertent behaviour, and looser definitions of power imbalance. In 2009, a high school senior in Florida was suspended for cyberbullying after posting a rant about a teacher on Facebook, which throws the elements of repeated behaviour and power imbalance out the window entirely.

Trauma

Trauma has expanded horizontally to include psychological as well as physical trauma. Since the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) first identified PTSD as a diagnosis, it’s vertically expanded what is recognized as a traumatic event. There’s also been a broader cultural expansion of what constitutes trauma.

Mental illness

The DSM has expanded horizontally, and to a lesser extent vertically, with regards to disorders besides PTSD, including addictions (a concept which now encompasses behavioural addictions). Haslam writes, “As a result, the proportion of humanity warranting a diagnosis has risen and the proportion of human experience and behavior that counts as disordered has swelled.”

Prejudice

The notion of what’s considered prejudice has also expanded to include much subtler examples than previous notions. The current notion of racism, which includes implicit attitudes and microaggressions, is much broader than the previous idea of blatant KKK-style racism.

The concept of phobia has also expanded to include aversion (e.g. homophobia). I recently came across a website (I don’t recall the name) that said it was moving away from -phobia terms because aversion is not the same thing as fear-based phobias. While aversion often comes with fear of the Other, it’s a different phenomenon from anxiety disorders; if I’m homophobic and arachnophobic, I’m not having the same kind of reaction to gay people as I am to spiders. It’s a bit odd really that the same term gets used for both things.

Why it occurs

There are various factors that may contribute to concept creep. One is societal changes that have produced phenomena that didn’t exist before (e.g. cyberbullying couldn’t have been a thing before the internet). The nature of the field of psychology itself may also play a role, with concepts being extended by analogy and getting more academic attention. The idea of “Darwinian concepts” refers to successful concepts tending to expand.

The growth in advocacy for the protection of the rights of members of marginalized groups has made society more sensitive to potential harms, which may be why concept creep tends to be observed with negative phenomena. Haslam argued that a liberal moral agenda has also broadened the circle of moral concern.

One study found that people with a liberal political orientation, high levels of empathic concern, or high levels of entitlement (feeling they had a right to positive outcomes) were more likely to have expansive concepts of what constitutes harm. However, concept creep can also happen at the opposite end of the political spectrum; it just tends to apply to liberty-related concepts like freedom of speech rather than harm. The COVID-era restrictions certainly seem to have brought about an expansion in terms of what falls under the umbrella of personal autonomy as opposed to actions for the common good.

Concept creep and psychiatrization

In a 2021 paper, Haslam and colleagues described psychiatrization as a process that overlaps with concept creep. Psychiatrization involves expanding diagnostic categories, but it also involves increasing numbers of people being diagnosed and treated. It’s influenced by factors that are distinct from more general concept creep, including the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, insurers, and governments.

Medicalization (making things medical issues out of things that were previously non-medical areas) is similar to horizontal concept creep, while overdiagnosis (giving a diagnosis to conditions that aren’t causing significant distress or dysfunction) is more along the lines of vertical concept creep. Overdiagnosis isn’t necessarily driven by the DSM; for example, the removal of the bereavement exclusion from the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode in the DSM-5 was explicitly not a green light to diagnose every grieving person with an illness. However, it was a change that could certainly facilitate overdiagnosis by individual health care providers.

As with concept creep more generally, psychiatrization involves an expansion of harm-related concepts, which Haslam and al. suggested could be a reflection of the broader cultural increase in harm sensitivity. Psychiatrization can happen in a top-down fashion (influenced by diagnostic manuals, institutions, and medical professionals) as well as bottom-up, with members of the general public and the popular media using psychiatric language to characterize things they experience and observe.

Haslam et al. also pointed out that there’s been a shift in non-psychiatric fields in the concept of “mental health” from the absence of illness to the presence of well-being. Framing “mental health” as “well-being” may lead to low levels of well-being being interpreted as the presence of mental illness. However, “mental health” also gets used as if it’s synonymous with or a euphemism for “mental illness,” so it’s a term that gets around.

Consequences of concept creep

Concept creep has had positive consequences, including increased attention being paid to harms that were previously dismissed. It’s a good thing that we’re now paying attention to things like emotional abuse and neglect. However, there can also be negative consequences to expanding concepts.

Identifying with a label can change people’s behaviour and sense of self, so concept creep can actually alter social reality. Harm-related concept creep can potentially lead to more people defining themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, and this can have a negative impact on agency (the sense of being able to make choices and act on them).

Trying to overprotect people from harm (such as through helicopter parenting or protecting students from anything that might possibly offend them a little bit) can make it harder for people to develop resilience. There’s also the risk of overshooting good intentions. Kids are no more likely to get kidnapped by a stranger now than they were in the past, but if giving kids any sort of freedom is getting labelled as neglect, that might be taking the good intention of protecting kids and running too far with it.

Concept creeps runs the risk of semantic dilution by using the same words to describe mild and extreme versions of human experiences. People who have extreme experiences may have their experiences minimized if it seems like everyone and their dog has some version of those experiences. I think this is definitely an issue with the general public adopting psychiatric language and pathologizing normal human experience.

Is it good or bad?

I found it quite interesting to read about this, and it certainly seems like a good fit with changes that have happened over the last few decades. It’s a good thing that society is recognizing legitimate harms that were previously invalidated, but there’s definitely a risk of swinging too far in a well-meaning direction. I think the line between neglect and giving children age-appropriate freedom certainly needs to be firmed up, because I see those as being very different things.

Precise language facilitates communication, and broadening concepts too much can make it harder to be precise. Cancel culture strikes me as an example of something that’s used to refer to several multiple distinct concepts, to the point that it can be hard to know what exactly people are using the term to refer to.

Maybe sometimes we’re better off coming up with new words rather than using older words to refer to a widening circle of different phenomena. Just because A, B, and C have similarities doesn’t mean it’s necessarily useful to call them all A.

What are your thoughts?

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

24 thoughts on “What Is… Concept Creep”

  1. I like what you wrote about identifying with labels and the impact that over-protective parenting can have on a person. I always appreciate your articles. They are thorough, interesting and informative. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Very interesting. I feel some psychiatric terms have a vernacular meaning that is broader than what can be diagnosed. People say they’re “depressed” when they’re down, “anxious” when they’re worried, “triggered” when they had any kind of vaguely upset or angry reaction. I try not to talk about being “triggered” or “traumatised” as I don’t have PTSD. That said, I do still sometimes use the “depressed” tag on my blog even though I’m usually referring to strong, but now non-clinical low mood. It’s just easier for my own reference to link posts where I was feeling similar, even if some of those moods were not intense or persistent enough for diagnosis. (I consider that my clinical depression ended around spring 2021.)

    I’ve seen some discussion in the autistic community, and outside it, about whether people are being diagnosed or self-diagnosed as autistic incorrectly for various reasons mostly connected with politics and hierarchies of victimhood. Self-diagnosis in particular can be a touchy subject.

  3. I agree that there are upsides and downsides. It’s great that by expanding the definition of abuse, trauma, depression, etc. more people feel comfortable with discussing their past and (hopefully) growing emotionally stronger because they are not alone in their experience. Just because someone is functional does not mean they are doing OK. In fact, one might view the underplaying of trauma as a way to keep people quiet and working. Damn the man!

    On the other hand, when everything and everyone is called racist, then actual racism becomes diluted. An inadvertent remark about rap music is not the same as generations of WP denying Blacks the right to jobs, housing, education, etc. Same goes for many situations where a “karen” (of any gender or ethnicity) starts yelling about feeling violated because her muffin didn’t contain enough blueberries or whatever thing…

    So much of this has to do with people being on social media 24/7 and having nothing to say of any value yet craving attention. So they make shit up or latch onto the opinion du jour…

    1. That’s a very good point about social media. People latch onto things without making the effort to develop any sort of deeper understanding, and they want to talk about the topic/opinion du jour to get more attention.

  4. I always learn so much from your posts, this is super fascinating.

    That 2014 park example is absolutely wild; children are (still) allowed to be on their own in a park here in Australia. And now one culture’s rules on strict parenting is another culture’s abusive behaviour. I wonder how concept creep transcends nations/cultures with the internet.

    1. Spanking is an interesting example of the strict parenting/abuse thing. Wikipedia says it’s illegal in much of Europe and South America, but I would imagine there are plenty of cultures where it’s pretty common practice.

  5. Thanks as always for an informative post. I just have a couple of thoughts. I agree that it may cause confusion when terms like “depressed” or “anxious” may mean non-clinical and clinical designations alike and depend on the context and the author who used them. In an ideal world, I think it would be nicer if we had words that differentiated the clinical state from the non-clinical state. I also think it’s a bit of a problem to normalize psychiatric behavior. It feels like a slippery slope where one set of labels can be applied to two or more widely varying levels of behavior. Just my two cents.

  6. That’s very interesting! I’m with you on that I think it would be a lot easier if we’d just try to be more creative and try to make up separate terms for different things, even if they share similarities.

  7. Ooo this is good! I’d never heard of the term “concept creep” before but I’ve definitely noticed definitions and criteria widening and the lines blurring. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes not so much, as you rightly point out. I do think there’s a danger point here where we’re at because of the how politicised so much is becoming, not to mention issues around being politically correct or fears of living in a ‘nanny state’.

    For instance, should wolf whistling from a builder to a woman walking past be considered sexual abuse/assault and be subject to a criminal case? In the UK, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s hard to know where to draw the line but I think we’re risking becoming too… not sure what word suits because my brain isn’t working… but there’s a tendency to try to cover everything and not insult anyone and that sort of thing.

    The problem is, those suffering physical abuse find perpetrators get let off the hook, but someone could be jailed for whistling once; those with psychiatric disorders can’t get the help they need but an ex-employee can sue for a million for feeling upset because they were fired after repeatedly showing up late for work; a teenager with low-level anxiety is now seen to have a psychiatric disorder and gets medicated to the eyeballs whereas we’d have seen it previously as the mental health issues that can arise during adolescence.

    Anyway, not quite what you were talking about but that’s what it made me think of. You make a good point with phobias vs something like homophobia. It’s a weird one, isn’t it? xx

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