New research by Daniel Gilbert speaks to our conflicted relationship with progress

Peter Reuell in the Harvard Gazette:

By several measures, including rates of poverty and violence, progress is an international reality. Why, then, do so many of us believe otherwise?

The answer, Harvard researcher Daniel Gilbert says, may lie in “prevalence-induced concept change.”

In a series of studies, Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, his postdoctoral student David Levari, and several other researchers show that as the prevalence of a problem is reduced, humans are inclined to redefine the problem. As a problem becomes smaller, conceptualizations of the problem expand, which can lead to progress being discounted. The research is described in a paper in the June 29 issue of Science.

“Our studies show that people judge each new instance of a concept in the context of the previous instances,” Gilbert said. “So as we reduce the prevalence of a problem, such as discrimination, for example, we judge each new behavior in the improved context that we have created.”

“Another way to say this is that solving problems causes us to expand our definitions of them,” he said. “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems. Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all. Progress, it seems, tends to mask itself.”

More here.

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