Past Is Prologue

The Psychology of Finding What You’re Looking For

When blue becomes rare, purple becomes blue

Sam Brinson
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readJul 16, 2018

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Illustration by author

By many measures, the world of today is a lot better than it was a hundred years ago. Literacy, life expectancy, and the number of people above the poverty line have all increased dramatically. That’s not to say there aren’t many more problems to solve, and that we don’t have further to climb uphill in already improving areas.

Yet plenty of people bicker and argue as though the world will end tomorrow. We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance. Perhaps global warming is stressing us out, or the impending rise of a robot workforce is putting us on edge — things change so quickly we just don’t feel like we have a grip on what’s around the bend. Maybe it’s all the fault of social media.

A group of researchers might have one piece of the puzzle, and they call it “prevalence-induced concept change.”

“When instances of a concept become less prevalent, the concept may expand to include instances that it previously excluded, thereby masking the magnitude of its own decline.”

When we’re on the lookout for something, bad behavior, for example, and the instances of this bad behavior lessen, we expand our concept to include what would have previously been almost bad behavior. In essence, we lower our bar for what qualifies as ‘bad.’

We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance.

The researchers ran several experiments, most of which involved participants identifying blue dots from a series that ranged in color from ‘very blue’ to ‘very purple.’ After some time, the number of blue dots would reduce, and the participants would react by selecting as blue dots those they had previously considered purple — their category of ‘blue’ expanded as the number of examples of blue decreased.

In further experiments, the researchers found the same effect when participants had to identify aggressive faces from a group that ranged from ‘very threatening’ to ‘not very threatening,’ and again when separating unethical research proposals from ethical ones.

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Sam Brinson
Human Parts

An emergent property of billions of chaotically firing neurons. Currently thinking about thinking. http://sambrinson.com/