Concept Creep

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

PuddleConcept description

The expansion of meaning of concepts that refer to the negative aspects of human experience and behaviour so that they now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.

Nick Haslam explains the idea of concept creep in his 2016 article in Psychological Inquiry (reference below). The abstract of that article is:

“Many of psychology’s concepts have undergone semantic shifts in recent years. These conceptual changes follow a consistent trend. Concepts that refer to the negative aspects of human experience and behavior have expanded their meanings so that they now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before. This expansion takes “horizontal” and “vertical” forms: concepts extend outward to capture qualitatively new phenomena and downward to capture quantitatively less extreme phenomena. The concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice are examined to illustrate these historical changes. In each case, the concept’s boundary has stretched and its meaning has dilated. A variety of explanations for this pattern of “concept creep” are considered and its implications are explored. I contend that the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda. Its implications are ambivalent, however. Although conceptual change is inevitable and often well motivated, concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”

In a Commentary in the same journal issue (reference below), Jonathan Haidt addresses the question of “Why Concepts Creep to the Left.” Haidt provides a detailed summary of Haslam’s paper and adds his commentary in the his open access blog, The Heterodox Academy (reference below).

Haidt and Haslam collaborated on an April 2016 article in The Guardian (reference below). They write:

“One step that might reverse concept creep is to expand notions of diversity to include viewpoint diversity, especially political diversity. Between 1990 and 2010, American university faculties went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But if students are not exposed to conservative ideas, they are more likely to find them traumatising when they encounter them outside of college.

“Ultimately, it is the students themselves who will have to stand up and reject victimhood culture and its creeping concepts. One way to do this is to embrace the term “danger” the way earlier activists reclaimed the term “queer.”

“Students at every university should push their student governments to hold a vote on whether the students want a “safe” university that routinely bans speakers, warns students about novels, and punishes students and professors for speech acts, or a “dangerous” university that takes no steps to protect its students from exposure to words, speakers, and ideas (with limited exceptions such as slander or threats of violence).

“The debates that would surround such campus votes would help students see that too much safety is, ultimately, more dangerous than anything written in chalk.”


Nick Haslam (2016). Concept creep: Psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology, Psychological Inquiry, 27, p. 1-17, at, accessed 16 April 2016.

Jonathan Haidt (2016). Why Concepts Creep to the Left, Psychological Inquiry, 27, p. 40-45, at, accessed 16 April 2016.

Jonathan Haidt (2016). The Most Dangerous Creep On Campus, The Heterodox Academy, 9 April 2016, at, accessed 16 April 2016.

Jonathan Haidt and Nick Halsam (2016), Campuses are places for open minds – not where debate is closed down, The Guardian, 10 April 2016, at, accessed 16 April 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 20 May 2017.

Image: IHS Engineering 360, Why do Puddles Spread, at, accessed 17 April 2016.