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.
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 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 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.
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.”
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?
- Friedersdorf, C. (2016). How Americans became so sensitive to harm. The Atlantic.
- Harper, C. A., Purser, H., & Baguley, T. (2021). Concepts Creep to the Left and the Right. PsyArXiv Preprints.
- Haslam, N. (2016). Concept creep: Psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1), 1-17.
- Haslam, N., Tse, S. Y. J., & De Deyne, S. (2021). Concept Creep and Psychiatrization. Frontiers in Sociology, 226.
- McGrath, M. J., Randall-Dzerdz, K., Wheeler, M. A., Murphy, C., & Haslam, N. (2019). Concept creepers: Individual differences in harm-related concepts and their correlates. Personality and Individual Differences, 147, 79-84.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.