Why we so often believe things are getting worse when in fact they’re getting better, why bureaucracies always get bigger not smaller, and why governments ban plastic bags is explained in an academic paper published last month in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment” could turn out to be one of the most significant pieces of social science research published in recent years. It’s six authors include Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, whose book Stumbling on Happiness has sold more than a million copies.
The paper can be summarised as: “In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots become rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening … this ‘prevalence-induced concept change’ occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.”
One of the experiments the researchers conducted was to show participants a series of 1000 coloured dots shaded on a continuum from very purple to very blue. Participants were asked to designate whether a dot was blue. Participants were split into two groups, one group shown the same number of blue dots (the “stable prevalence condition”) and another group shown a lesser number of blue dots (the “decreasing prevalence condition”). The researchers found, “participants in the decreasing prevalence condition were more likely to identify dots as blue when those dots appeared in a final trial than when those dots appeared in an initial trial. In other words, when the prevalence of blue dots decreased, participants’ concept of blue expanded to include dots that it had previously excluded.”
What’s interesting is that the participants’ perception of what was a blue dot changed, even after they were told the prevalence of blue dots would decrease, and even after they were offered monetary incentives to be consistent in their judgment of what was and wasn’t a blue dot.
The science of ‘creep’
The paper cites two other experiments. Participants were shown a series of images of computer-generated human faces ranked on a continuum of “very threatening” to “not very threatening”. As the prevalence of “very threatening” faces was reduced, “participants’ concept of threat expanded to include targets that it had previously excluded”.
The researchers then expanded their experiments to consider whether abstract concepts could expand. Participants were shown 240 proposals for scientific experiments ranked on a continuum from “very ethical” to “very unethical”. Again, when the prevalence of unethical research proposals decreased, participants’ concept of what was unethical expanded to include what had previously been excluded.
The researchers are correct to say, “These results have sobering implications”, and they were careful to acknowledge they “took no position” on whether expanding a concept is necessarily good or bad. They reference the fact that “creep” is a well-known phenomenon, as in “feature creep” (the unintended expansion of a product’s features over time), “scope creep” (the unintended expansion of a team’s mandate over time), and “mission creep” (the unintended expansion of a campaign’s objectives over time).
Few bureaucracies will ever admit their job is done, either because of their own self-interest or because as the paper says, “even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognise the success of their own efforts”. And sometimes bureaucracies and governments are not well-meaning – they just want more power over people’s lives.
“Prevalence-induced concept change” has fascinating consequences for how we understand modern-day politics.
The paper notes: “As it turns out, abstract concepts can creep, too. For example, in 1960, Webster’s dictionary defined ‘aggression’ as ‘an unprovoked attack or invasion’, but today that concept can include behaviours such as making insufficient eye contact or asking people where they are from. Many other concepts, such as abuse, bullying, mental disorder, trauma, addiction and prejudice, have expanded of late as well. Some take these expansions as signs of political correctness and others as signs of social awakening.”
John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.