Geeking Science: The more things change…

Photo by Roxy Aln on Unsplash

The more things change … the more things *we think* remain the same.

Not a result I was expecting, and yet, also, exactly true.

Some people call it a version of mission creep. Not just adding more things to be done, but refusing the acknowledge progress by expanding the problems to be resolved as some are solved.

Among the traumatized, threats never go away. PTSD sets a person threat-awareness at a certain level, and the way humans are set up makes it hard to change.

For writers and other creatives, the “I suck” remains the same even as product quality and quantity increases.

In 2018, three studies gave a look into perceptual and judgement creep, and jointly published under “Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgement.”

The study most people focused on was where the scientists asked volunteers to judge threatening faces, but decreased the number of threatening faces over time. The participants reported numbers close to steady, with previously benign faces becoming threatening. (Schneier)

Another study had people review ethical vs. unethical proposals. When the percentage of unethical proposals lowered, the participants started identifying previously benign proposals as unethical. (ScienceDaily)

The kicker was having people judge blue dots, in case you think it is just high-level assessments. When the blue dots decreased, participants started picking purple dots to make up the difference. (

Even when the participants were warned about the judgement-creep might happen, it continued. Even when paid to watch out for it and resist it, “prevalence-induced concept change” remained in effect.

Social problems may seem unsolvable because we keep seeing and processing the same amount, even though the overall percentage has changed. “I always found 10 homeless, there are always 10 homeless. This problem can’t be solved.” (Never mind that during the broad census, the area had 10,000 in 2010 and 5,000 in 2020 (random statistics as an example, not actually real) – what was processed remained unchanged.)

Schneier points out “This has a lot of implications in security systems where humans have to make judgments about threat and risk: TSA agents, police noticing “suspicious” activities, “see something say something” campaigns, and so on.” (Schneier)

Daniel Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, who organized the studies with his post-doctoral student David Levari, states “these studies suggests that there may be a need for institutional mechanisms to guard against the prevalence-induced concept change.” (

“Anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done,” <Gilbert> said. “On the other hand, our studies suggest that simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it. What can prevent it? No one yet knows. That’s what the phrase ‘more research is needed’ was invented for.” (

Being aware is half the battle, the question is what the other half of the battle?

For creatives, be aware your perception of your writing and art should change with time. For childhood or adult-onset PTSD, be aware that the threat detection matrix in your mind is not giving your correct information (which you were already aware of, but now you have another scientific study explaining how the brain is wired).

I believe one of the best ways to fight it within society in general, and maybe individuals, is statistics. Numbers may not be the greatest way to hack into the emotional programming, but logic can help some.

Good luck. Fight the mission creep by clearly defining goals. Fight the threat assessment by working on rewiring threat processing.


Schneier, Bruce. “Conservation of Threat.” Schneier on Security. June 29, 2018 at 9:44 am. – last viewed 12/20/2022. “Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgement.” June, 29, 2018. – last viewed 12/20/2022. “The problem with solving problems.” June 28, 2018. – last viewed 12/20/2022.