More blue dots

Oliver Burkeman explains how it can be true both that things are overall getting better and that we still run around with our hair on fire because of all the things that are getting worse. There’s this study

In the experiment, participants were shown hundreds of dots in shades from deep purple to deep blue, and asked to say whether each was blue or not. Obviously, the bluer a dot, the more likely people were to classify it as blue. But what’s interesting is what happened when researchers began reducing the prevalence of the blue dots they displayed. The fewer dots that were objectively blue, the broader people’s definition of “blue” became: they started to classify purplish dots that way, too. Their concept of blue expanded, a phenomenon the study authors label “prevalence-induced concept change”. Which clearly has nothing to do with social problems such as poverty or racism – except that, actually, it might.

Of course it might…and that’s not even necessarily wrong (as he goes on to say). A social evil may be ameliorated but we still want to do more, and that’s a good thing. Yes, many Jim Crow laws were repealed, but there are still all those Confederate statues sending their messages about violent subordination of former slaves so let’s not quit yet ok?

But then again sometimes that finding The New Burning Injustice can get…warped.

It’s been argued that we live in an era of “concept creep”, in which concepts like “trauma” or “violence” have stretched to encompass things no previous generation would have worried about. Hence the idea that certain forms of speech are literally violence. Or that letting an eight-year-old walk to school alone is actual child neglect. Or – to pick an example from the current contentious debate over gender identity – that to question someone’s preferred explanation for their experience of gender is to deny their right to exist. Subsequent stages of the blue-dot study showed that prevalence-induced concept change affects this kind of issue, too. For instance, if you ask people to classify faces as threatening or non-threatening, then reduce the incidence of threatening ones, they’ll define more neutral faces as threatening. Ask them to classify research proposals as ethical or unethical, then reduce the unethical ones, and they’ll expand their definition of “unethical”. As co-author Dan Gilbert put it, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times not so much. The expansion of human rights into the claim that one’s subjective ideas about oneself are both infallible and To Be Respected has a lot of absurd implications that bear no great resemblance to social justice.

The challenge when it comes to social problems – or your personal problems – is to ask whether the thing you’re worrying about is more like the former or the latter: a serious problem in its own right, or one you’ve essentially invented? If it feels like nothing’s improving, it might be because your brain keeps shifting the goalposts.

Exactly so.

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