The Psychology of Finding What You’re Looking for

By many measures, the world of today is a lot better than that of even 100 years ago. Literacy, life expectancy, and 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 uphill to climb in already improving areas.

Yet plenty of people bicker and argue like the world will end tomorrow. We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance. Perhaps global warming is stressing us out, 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 social medias fault.

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 such as bad behaviour, and the examples of this bad behaviour dry up, we expand our concept to include what would have previously been almost bad behaviour. In essence, we lower our bar for what constitutes ‘bad.’

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 new dots as blue when they had previously viewed them as 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 the ethical ones.

When instead of reducing the number of blue dots they increase them, the effect reverses—what had previously counted as blue suddenly gets left out. What’s more, they also found the effect to occur when people were told they were doing it, and even when they were paid not to fall into the trap.

It seems we are incapable of making our concepts rigid, and must give in to them 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, that aren’t actively looking to label certain things, might not be susceptible to the same concept shift. If I remain indifferent to acts of aggression and acts of kindness, even when the frequency of one side changes, would I be more likely to recognise that change or to alter my definition?

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 it. If negative things are reduced, we are likely to continue to find negativity in things 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 we want the world to go in, but it would be nice if we were more aware of what we accomplish along the way.

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