If it seems the state of the world is on an endless downward trajectory these days, take heart. Things might not be quite as bad as you think. New research, published on June 29 in Science, suggests that as social problems such as extreme poverty or violence become less prevalent, people may be prone to perceive that they linger—and are perhaps even getting worse.
Led by psychologist Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, the researchers found people readily and unconsciously change how they define certain concepts—ranging from specific colors to unethical behavior—based on how frequently they run into them. “On almost every dimension, the world is getting better. And yet when people are asked, they consistently say it’s not getting better, and in fact it’s getting worse,” Gilbert says. “As we solve problems, we also unknowingly expand our definitions of what counts as them.”
Concept expansion itself is not a new observation. In 2016 social psychologist Nicholas Haslam at the University of Melbourne in Australia introduced the term “concept creep” to describe the broadening of modern psychological terminology—especially negative examples such as abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice—to include cases previously judged benign or inoffensive.
In some cases, the expansion of concepts such as aggression (and more recently, “microaggressions”) in the public consciousness has sparked heated debate; some critics argue these shifts reflect political correctness run amok whereas others claim they signal growing social awareness. Gilbert is emphatically agnostic on the issue. “Expanding a concept isn’t necessarily good or bad,” he says. “Science doesn’t weigh in on whether it’s a good or bad thing.” He and others are simply interested in understanding how the phenomenon happens.
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