Most of us try to remain hopeful that life is getting better, but it’s difficult to do this in our dynamic, often chaotic world. We receive a veritable firehose of negative news every day that makes the world seem like it’s spiraling down the drain. We certainly do have some seismic problems—global climate change, inflation, political polarization, extreme weather events, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of artificial superintelligence, surveillance capitalism, the threats of pandemics, bioterrorism, nuclear war, and so on. While these problems, and the threats of potential problems, are real, most of us still enjoy a standard of living that our ancestors would envy. By most major metrics (e.g., poverty levels, homicide rates, deaths from wars and famine, longevity, child/infant mortality rates), the world is getting better and not worse. Despite all of the enormous progress that humans have made in the last several hundred years, it still feels as if it’s the end of the world as we know it. While there are many reasons for this, one that you probably have not heard about is called prevalence-induced concept change.
Prevalence-induced concept change might be considered a form of hedonic adaptation. Also referred to as “the hedonic treadmill,” hedonic adaptation has its roots in our evolutionary heritage. Humans evolved to be incredibly adaptive so that we can survive and thrive. We are so adaptive that most external events and situations only move our “happiness needle” up or down for a relatively short while. Thus, whether it’s a new car, smartphone, romantic partner, or fun vacation, our happiness needle only moves up for a short time before returning to our default level of happiness or “set point.” Likewise, most negative events (e.g., flat tire, being late for a meeting, a bungled presentation, argument with a romantic partner) typically only affect our happiness temporarily.
Hedonic adaption makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because if the positive or negative events from the past affected us for too long, it would be difficult for us to make skillful decisions in the present. In a manner of speaking, our feelings from the past would obscure our vision. For example, if my outstanding lunch from yesterday continued to give me great pleasure today, I might not realize that the questionable meal I’m eating currently is not fit for human consumption. We need our current feelings of pleasure/displeasure in the present moment to guide us toward what is good for us and away from what is bad for us.
Prevalence-Induced Concept Change
Prevalence-induced concept change is a psychological construct identified and described by social psychologists David Levari, Dan Gilbert, and their team of researchers. In a clever series of experiments, they found that when a target “signal” for which a person is looking becomes rarer, the person broadens their perception of what constitutes the target signal so that they can still find it. For example, in their series of experiments, they found that when participants were instructed to identify threatening faces among many different facial expressions, they were able to do so accurately enough. However, as truly threatening faces were removed from the stimulus field and replaced by less threatening faces, these same participants began to identify faces as threatening that they previously did not consider threatening. This process occurred even when participants were instructed to “be consistent” and incentivized with money to be as accurate as possible. Put another way, as life improves, the “goalposts of goodness” move as well such that things never seem to be getting any better.
The Far-Reaching Impact of Prevalence-Induced Concept Change
Prevalence-induced concept change can be used to explain why so many of us feel like the world isn’t getting any better. As our society improves across many areas (e.g., longevity, health care, racism, sexism), we adapt to this “new normal.” Our reference point for progress is measured against this new, higher standard. We continue to see the problems of our world, and these seem just as bad, or worse than the problems of decades past.
Prevalence-induced concept change might explain why some view racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., as running amok in our society and growing worse. It is not that these problems don’t exist; it is just that we have a hard time experiencing a sense of progress because the goalposts keep moving. Our hedonic treadmill has turned into Jacob’s Ladder so that for every step forward, it feels like we are falling two steps back.
As another example of prevalence-induced concept change, if you are a parent, you might be making extra efforts to ensure that you do not repeat some of the mistakes that your parents made. When our kids complain or act ungrateful, we might think or say something like, “Oh my gosh! I can’t even understand why you are complaining about what I said about your report card! When I was your age, do you know what my parents used to do to me if I brought home a report card like that? It was way worse than what I said to you. All I said was that I think you could get even higher grades if you tried a bit harder. You acted like I called you a lazy bum. I didn’t even say that—but that’s what my parents used to say to me when I was your age! Jeez, you kids don’t know how easy you have it these days! I don’t understand why you are acting as if I’m a horrible parent for saying such a small thing.”
Even as we strive to improve our parenting, our kids might change their concept of what constitutes “bad” or “unfair” parenting. Conversely, we might be getting upset at our kids for relatively minor infractions because of prevalence-induced concept change as well.
We should not ignore societal problems and various injustices in the world. We need to keep striving for progress because there is always room for improvement. That said, we need to put today’s problems in proper context to see that we have indeed made much progress in so many areas of life over time.
Constantly thinking that the world is going down the drain is demoralizing. Seeing the progress we have made can help us to feel hopeful that we can make more progress in the future. This is not about resting on our laurels. It’s about giving ourselves some credit for improvements that we’ve made in life, both individually and collectively as a society, so that we can maintain hope. We can use this hope to fuel our motivation to learn, grow, and improve. As bad as we think things might be, losing hope makes it less likely that we will work toward the better world that we desire.
There is a both/and way of viewing the world that might help us move forward if more people adopted it: The world is pretty awesome—and there is a lot of room for improvement. These are not mutually exclusive. As we enter the new year, let’s make an extra effort to be grateful for progress and the many miracles of modernity from which we benefit while at the same time striving to create a better world for the current generation and the generations to come.