Concept Creep, Or “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”

a lego figure of Inigo Montoya, a character from The Princess Bride
Image by Caleb Wagoner / CC BY

Concept creep has to be one of my biggest pet peeves.

What’s concept creep? It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Concept creep occurs when a concept that originally meant something very specific later comes to encompass a much broader set of unrelated, or only loosely related, phenomena.

Psychology has been particularly plagued by concept creep. According to Nick Haslam, who is credited with coining the phrase:

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…In each case, the concept’s boundary has stretched and its meaning has dilated. 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.

Codependency, Narcissism, and Emotional Labor Are Very Specific Things

Many concepts have fallen prey to this effect. One notable example is codependency, which had a very specific meaning when it was first coined in substance abuse circles (the state of another person being co-addicted to substances by proxy, owing to their close relationship with an addict) but now is used by the general population to describe an entire array of behaviors that have nothing to do with the original concept and aren’t necessarily even pathological depending on the particular context (thinner than average boundaries, people pleasing, dependence in general, etc.).

A similar fate has befallen narcissism. There are actually pretty specific criteria for narcissistic traits, behavior, and of course the full blown personality disorder. However, it’s fashionable now for lay folks to label anyone that behaves like a jerk a “narcissist,” where many times the person in question is actually showing a pattern of behavior more consistent with other cluster B disorders (i.e., antisocial, borderline, histrionic). Or they’re just being kind of jerky and inconsiderate — but in a way that’s divorced from anything that’s really beyond the diagnostic pale. Because just because someone’s annoying or acting in a hurtful way, it doesn’t make them disordered.

It’s happening virtually everywhere you look. The Atlantic ran a piece recently on how emotional labor has suffered concept creep, an article which features an interview with the sociologist who originally coined the term.

Not All Psychological or Emotional Invalidation Is Gaslighting.

However, I would have to say that in my own work these days, I’m most frequently dealing with concept creep in regards to gaslighting.

The term gaslighting originally referred to a very specific form of psychological manipulation. Its origins stem from a play from the 1930s called Gaslight, in which a man tries to make his wife and other people think she’s insane by messing with small aspects of her environment and then telling her she’s wrong and possibly insane when she later points it out to him. In one instance, this literally involves dimming gaslights in the house while he’s up to some shenanigans (he’s not a nice dude and also killed another lady and is rooting around looking for the dead woman’s jewels), thus the name.

So the term gaslighting informally came to describe an effort to manipulate someone’s perception of reality in a way that can make someone else feel crazy and doubt their own sanity. Where classically this process was dependent on a person messing with physical objects in one’s external environment, it’s also come to be understood that it’s possible to gaslight someone through less concrete methods: Lying, misdirection, denial, etc.

This is fine and a fairly minor extension of the original more literal use.

What is a problem, however, is that people have started to use it refer not just to this specific form of manipulation but instead to refer to any form of psychological invalidation.

One common misapplication I’ve seen many times in my travels is the following: In situations in which your partner disagrees with you about a subject that’s actually quite ambiguous and you get hurt by it, people are quite eager to jump in and say that the partner is gaslighting you. But that’s not what gaslighting is. Not every hurtful interpersonal conflict is (in fact, while gaslighting certainly happens, it’s relatively rare compared to other more common forms of maladaptive relating).

Emotional Invalidation Versus Gaslighting

However, it’s trendy so people are using the word a lot — whether they really should or not. Often what’s being mistakenly described as gaslighting these days is at best an honest disagreement over something ambiguous — or at worst, it’s an instance of emotional invalidation.

What’s emotional invalidation? It’s when someone else tells you that your emotions or thoughts aren’t valid. This can happen in a number of ways. Someone can simply ignore them and go about their merry way without considering them. Or they can outright judge you for them (“that’s a stupid way to feel”). They can even reject your own assessment of your emotional state by telling you, “Oh that’s not how you really feel.”

Is emotional invalidation hurtful? Absolutely.

Is emotional invalidation gaslighting? Nope, not really.

A better example of gaslighting would be if someone told you that they never had conversations with you that you know you did and tell you that you must be crazy or overworked if you think that actually happened. Or if they’re hiding things on you and telling you that you must be mistaken about those items getting lost (especially if they put them back in their original place later, causing you to doubt your sanity).

But What Does It All Mean, Basil?

Okay, so language is evolving. Whoop de freaking doo. That’s what language does, right? Maybe it’s annoying to prescriptivists (like a lot of other things), but what’s the big deal?

Well, concept creep has consequences.

In addition to Nick Haslam’s concerns above about pathologizing the everyday, I also find myself frustrated by the difficulty concept creep poses to communication. Where those terms once held some utility in talking with others, I find more often than not that when I’m attempting to problem-solve relationship issues with an individual that I absolutely cannot take any of that at face value. If they say that their partner is gaslighting them or they tell me that their ex was a narcissist, that ends up being incredibly low-yield information. Instead of learning anything important from those descriptors, I find myself expending considerable energy in followup questions, uncovering exactly what they think those words mean. What happened? What behaviors are we talking about?

Where several years ago, I was much more likely to have the individual describe the actual behavior at default, it’s more likely these days for people to start using labels instead as a shortcut. And ones they are often not applying correctly.

To be fair, there’s always going to be a place for that kind of followup in the helping professions. And people are generally unreliable narrators, incredibly biased and subjective sources of information, something you basically always have to keep in mind when you’re working with them and talking over complex social issues with them.

But concept creep really does seem to have gotten worse in recent years.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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