By many measures, the world of today is a lot better than it was a hundred years ago. Literacy, life expectancy, and the number of people above the poverty line have all increased dramatically. That’s not to say there aren’t many more problems to solve, and that we don’t have further to climb uphill in already improving areas.
Yet plenty of people bicker and argue as though the world will end tomorrow. We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance. Perhaps global warming is stressing us out, or the impending rise of a robot workforce is putting us on edge — things change so quickly we just don’t feel like we have a grip on what’s around the bend. Maybe it’s all the fault of social media.
A group of researchers might have one piece of the puzzle, and they call it “prevalence-induced concept change.”
“When instances of a concept become less prevalent, the concept may expand to include instances that it previously excluded, thereby masking the magnitude of its own decline.”
When we’re on the lookout for something, bad behavior, for example, and the instances of this bad behavior lessen, we expand our concept to include what would have previously been almost bad behavior. In essence, we lower our bar for what qualifies as ‘bad.’
We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance.
The researchers ran several experiments, most of which involved participants identifying blue dots from a series that ranged in color from ‘very blue’ to ‘very purple.’ After some time, the number of blue dots would reduce, and the participants would react by selecting as blue dots those they had previously considered purple — their category of ‘blue’ expanded as the number of examples of blue decreased.
In further experiments, the researchers found the same effect when participants had to identify aggressive faces from a group that ranged from ‘very threatening’ to ‘not very threatening,’ and again when separating unethical research proposals from ethical ones.
When increasing the number of blue dots instead of reducing them, the effect reverses — what had previously counted as blue suddenly gets left out. What’s more, the researchers also found the effect to occur when people were told they were doing it, and even when those people were paid to not fall into the trap.
This experiment seems to prove that we are incapable of making our concepts rigid, and must give in to ebbing and flowing. It should be noted, however, that this effect occurred when people were looking for instances of the concept — the blue category expanded as people sought to find blue dots, neutral faces became threatening when people were on a mission to find threatening faces.
People in normal circumstances, who aren’t actively looking to label certain things, might not be as susceptible to the same concept shifts. If I remain indifferent to acts of aggression and acts of kindness, even if the frequency of either act changes, will I be more likely to recognise that change or to alter my definition?
Will a friendly smile ever be considered an act of aggression?
It is also likely that there is a limit to how far this concept shift can go. Maybe some purple dots become blue, but would we ever label a red dot as blue? Will a friendly smile ever be considered an act of aggression? Surely the expanding categories have their limits. At least I hope so, because there are plenty of people on the lookout for whatever ‘bad’ means to them.
“When yellow bananas become less prevalent, a shopper’s concept of ‘ripe’ should expand to include speckled ones, but when violent crimes become less prevalent, a police officer’s concept of ‘assault’ should not expand to include jaywalking.”
Even if the world is getting better, it seems we aren’t all that adept at noticing the change. If negative elements are reduced, we are likely to continue to find negativity in elements we hadn’t before considered negative. And if we’re attentive to the good things, and they increase in number, our definition of good may narrow to exclude previous examples. This is, of course, the direction in which we want the world to go, but it would be nice if we were more aware of what we accomplish along the way.