A mother leaves her son in the car while popping into a store at a strip mall. She is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A high school senior complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher and is suspended for “cyberbullying.” Students at Wellesley start a petition calling for the removal of a statue of a man in his underwear, claiming that the art piece caused them emotional trauma. So many residents of Santa Monica, California, claim to need emotional support animals that the local farmer’s market warns against service dog fraud.
How did American culture arrive at these moments? A new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers as useful a framework for understanding what’s going on as any I’ve seen. In “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Haslam argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,”expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.”
He calls these expansions of meaning “concept creep.”