The meaning changed again – concept creep.

By David Joel Miller.

Problems increase when the definitions expand.

man creeping

Creeping.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Recently psychologists have been studying an idea called concept creep. The principle involved is that once we have identified a problem, more and more things are included in the definition we are using. This expanding definition can be either good or bad depending on your point of view. It’s possible that once we recognize the existence of a problem we begin to find more cases of that problem. Problem recognition is related to the expert effect; if you don’t know what something is, you may not recognize it when you see it.

It’s also been suggested that having once created a category of problem, additional things which used not to be considered a problem get defined into the category. Besides expanding a problem category by adding things to the category, our view of problems may increase as milder things get defined as problems. Expanding categories creates the impression that there is an “epidemic” and that we are all now at risk to experience this problem.

When a concept expands, what used to be normal, is now a part of our definition of problems. I am not arguing here that these changing definitions are a bad thing. But what we need to look at is how these definitions have changed over time and how these words may have very different meanings to different people. Remember that looking words up in the dictionary will not help us here. Various dictionaries will have different meanings for the same word, and the dictionary creates its definition based on the way people have been using the word.

Let’s look at some categories of problems that have expanded.

Mental illness used to be rare.

The term mentally ill used to be roughly equivalent to the label crazy. Today professionals don’t use the term crazy because it implies the condition is not treatable, and this labeling appears to be a case of blaming the victim. Originally mentally ill people were labeled psychotic. The kinds of emotional problems normal people had, were defined as neurotic. Today’s list of mental illnesses includes over 400 separate conditions with an additional 400 or so issues included in a list titled “conditions for further study.”

Increasingly mental illnesses are seen as falling along a continuum from mild to moderate to severe. Mild clusters of symptoms are now considered cases of illnesses where in the past these symptoms might have been attributed to the person’s personality. A person who in the past was described as having a sour, negative attitude might today be diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder or even as having a case of Major Depressive Disorder – mild.

Is that self-abuse?

Our definitions of abuse, both abuse of the self and others, have not just changed, some of them have been turned upside down. Masturbation was once the poster child for the evils of self-abuse, a practice parents frantically sought to contain before this behavior sent their children to the torments of hell. Today masturbation is seen as a normal expression of sexuality.

Beating yourself with whips and chains along with cutting your skin and crawling across broken glass has moved in the opposite direction. These kinds of self-inflicted pain used to be viewed as “mortification of the flesh” a positive spiritual behavior. Today pretty much any episode of self-inflicted damage to the body is viewed as “nonsuicidal self-injury” a symptom of a serious mental disorder.

Sometimes abuse of others doesn’t involve abuse.

Abuse of someone else used to be extremely clear-cut and easily recognizable. Abuse back then referred to beating someone, resulting in visible physical harm. Hitting children with a small stick was considered disciplining that child, a parental responsibility. Such beatings were often accompanied by the old biblical adage “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Today we are all reasonably clear that any hitting of a child that leaves marks meets the criteria for child abuse. Some people will even argue that any corporal punishment is child abuse. Please don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not suggesting that abuse is okay. What I’m trying to do here is chart the way in which our understanding of the concept of abuse has changed.

Abuse now includes not just physical beatings but also includes neglect and emotional abuse. The concept of abuse as also been expanded to include spousal abuse, elder abuse, and animal abuse. When it comes to elders, financial abuse is also a recognized form of abuse that triggers reporting by a mandated reporter.

“Goldsmith and Freyd (2005) considered emotional neglect, or “emotional unavailability,” to be a form of emotional abuse.” Quoted in Haslam, 2016.

Some of these expanded definitions of abuse spilled over to inform the next example of concept creep, bullying.

Would you recognize bullying if you did it?

I looked up the word bully in my trusty old “Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia” from 1898. It gives us two separate definitions of the word bully depending on whether the word is used as a noun, the person doing the bullying, or it is used as a verb, the act of bullying.

The root of the word bully comes from an older word which means noisy. Bullies were people who were blustering, quarrelsome and overbearing. A Bully was someone who was trying to dominate others. In common usage, back then a “bully” was a term for a pimp, someone who lived off the earnings of a prostitute.

The thing a bully did, when he was bullying, was to be overbearing, blustering, or menacing. A bully got what he wanted by making others fear him.

The concept of bullying is exploding. In the 20 years, 1990 to 2010, annual production of research articles on bullying increased 100 times, (Olweus (2013) Quoted in Haslam, 2016.)

Today the definition of bullying has expanded. Bullying now includes cyberbullying, actions not only to intimidate but to make people feel bad and which happen in the online world. The concept of bullying has also expanded into the workplace were things that used to be considered typical workplace politics may now be construed as “a hostile work environment.” Some researchers have suggested that excluding someone from the social group, or efforts to get others to exclude that person should also be included in our definition of bullying.

Why are they calling the police about that?

Media reporting on crimes, conspiracy theories, and a rash of calls to police reporting things that don’t meet most people’s understanding of crime may all be examples of concept creep in the area criminal behavior in public safety. More on these topics in an upcoming post.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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