Concept Expansion as a Source of Empowerment

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Concept Expansion as a Source of Empowerment

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Title: Concept Expansion as a Source of Empowerment
Author: Cikara, Mina
Citation: Cikara, Mina. 2016. “Concept Expansion as a Source of Empowerment.” Psychological Inquiry 27 (1) (January 2): 29–33. doi:10.1080/1047840x.2016.1111830.
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Abstract: In the target article, Nick Haslam (this issue) explores the incidence, origins, and potential consequences of concept creep in psychology. He dedicates the majority of the article to documenting how concept creep has manifested in six psychological concepts: abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice. Haslam convincingly demonstrates that these concepts have indeed expanded over time to include both qualitatively different and less severe forms of each concept. I agree whole-heartedly with Haslam when he says: “Understanding what drives this trend and evaluating its costs and benefits are important goals for people who care about psychology's place in our cultures. Equally important is the task of deciding whether the trend should be encouraged, ignored, or resisted” (p. 15).
Throughout the target article, Nick Haslam (this issue) is careful to avoid normative claims regarding creep's costs and benefits with regard to any one of the concepts in isolation. Regarding prejudice, for example, he notes,
It is important to reiterate here that by documenting the expanding meaning of prejudice in recent social psychology I am not questioning the validity of this expansion or advocating a return to a narrower understanding of the concept. … My point is simply that the concept now refers to much more than it did several decades ago. (p. 10)

However, Haslam does state that as a general phenomenon, concept creep may “have potentially damaging ramifications for society and for psychology that cannot be ignored” (p. 2). Specifically, he suggests that concept creep may cause more people to identify as victims, which may reduce their sense of agency. Drawing on “moral typecasting” theory (Gray & Wegner, 2009) he states,
A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight. (p. 14)

The goal of this commentary is to challenge this last suggestion. Focusing on concept creep as it relates to prejudice and discrimination, I highlight three mechanisms by which conceptual expansion may actually serve to empower “victims,” interaction partners, and third-party allies. (It is worth noting that several of these mechanisms could generalize to the other concepts highlighted in the target article.) First, labeling less qualitatively and quantitatively prototypical instances of prejudice as prejudice may reduce targets' uncertainty about their experiences. Thus, rather than diminishing agency, concept expansion may dampen diffuse negative arousal, reduce an avoidance orientation to intergroup interactions, and inspire greater engagement in collective action on behalf of one's group. Second, these labels may serve to reduce uncertainty among well-meaning interaction partners and third parties, fostering stronger alliances in the long term between disadvantaged and advantaged individuals and groups. Finally, concept expansion may open up institutional channels for redressing social ills and inequalities that would remain closed if less prototypical manifestations of prejudice were considered categorically distinct.
Published Version: doi:10.1080/1047840X.2016.1111830
Terms of Use: This article is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Open Access Policy Articles, as set forth at
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