My friend, Andy, once taught in the Semester at Sea program. The program has an ocean-going ship and brings undergraduates together for a semester of sea travel, classes, and port calls. Andy told me that he was fascinated watching these youngsters come together and form in-groups and out-groups. The cliques were fairly stable while the ship was at sea but more fluid when it was in port.
Andy told me, for instance, that some of the women described some of the men as “Ship cute, shore ugly.” The very concept of “cute” was flexible and depended entirely on context. When at sea, a limited supply of men caused the “cute” definition to expand. In port, with more men available, the definition of cute became more stringent.
We usually think of concepts as more-or-less fixed. They’re unlike other processes that expand over time. The military, for instance is familiar with “mission creep” – a mission may start with small and well-defined objectives but they often grow over time. Similarly, software developers understand “feature creep” – new features are added as the software is developed. But do concepts creep? The Semester at Sea example suggests that they do, depending on prevalence.
This was also the finding of a research paper published in a recent issue of Science magazine. (Click here). Led by David Levari, the researchers showed that “… people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it.” In the Semester at Sea example, as the stimulus (men) decreases, the concept of cute expands. According to Levari, et. al., this is a common phenomenon and not just related to hormonal youngsters isolated on a ship.
The researchers started with a very neutral stimulus – the color of dots. They presented 1,000 dots ranging in color from purple to blue and asked participants to identify the blue ones. They repeated the trial several hundred times. Participants were remarkably consistent in each trial. Dots identified as blue in the first trials were still identified as blue in the last trials.
The researchers then repeated the trials while reducing the number of blue dots. Would participants in the second set of trials – with decreased stimulus — expand their definition of “blue” and identify dots as blue that they had originally identified as purple? Indeed, they would. In fact, the number of purple-to-blue “crossover” dots was remarkably consistent through numerous trials.
The researchers also varied the instructions for the comparisons. In the first study, participants were told that the number of blue dots “might change” in the second pass. In a second study, participants were told that the number of blue dots would “definitely decrease.” In a third study, participants were instructed to “be consistent” and were offered monetary rewards for doing so. In some studies the number of blue dots declined gradually. In others, the blue dots decreased abruptly. These procedural changes had virtually no impact on the results. In all cases, declining numbers of blue dots resulted in an expanded definition of “blue”.
Does concept creep extend beyond dots? The researchers did similar trials with 800 images of human faces that had been rated on a continuum from “very threatening” to “not very threatening.” The results were essentially the same as the dot studies. When the researchers reduced the number of threatening faces, participants expanded their definition of “threatening.”
All these tests used visual stimuli. Does concept creep also apply to nonvisual stimuli? To test this, the researchers asked participants to evaluate whether 240 research proposals were ethical or not. The results were essentially the same. When the participants saw many unethical proposals, their definition of ethics was fairly stringent. When they saw fewer unethical proposals, their definition expanded.
It seems then that “prevalence-induced concept change” – as the researchers label it – is probably common in human behavior. Could this help explain some of the pessimism in today’s world? For example, numerous sources verify that the crime rate in the United States has declined over the past two decade. (See here, here, and here, for example). Yet many people believe that the crime rate has soared. Could concept creep be part of the problem? It certainly seems likely.
Yet again, our perception of reality differs from actual reality. Like other cognitive biases, concept creep distorts our perception in predictable ways. As the number of stimuli – from cute to blue to ethical – goes down, we expand our definition of what the concept actually means. As “bad news” decreases, we expand our definition of what is “bad”. No wonder we’re pessimistic.