I'm not sure this is simply philosophy and not also some term of art used in other domains, but it's definitely conceptual and it is used in observation of people.

I saw an article a while back where a very interesting observation was made, within a certain domain/area of interest, that went something like "when someone/some group is looking for [something] and it is not found, they widen their definitions until a signal is found."

I'm thinking there must be some term or phrase for this, and that philosophers are the right people to ask. What would this be called?

Brownie points for other interesting considerations: I think the implication was that this widening of definition was self-trickery, i.e., people, when they use widening to find what they're looking for, are cheating themselves. It would be useful to have terms for both this cheating (when you ought not to be expanding to find something, you instead go "well, not found, better find a better question/new hypothesis/investigate other theories/etc.") and also a neutral term for widening without implying it being good/bad.

  • I made some edits. You may roll these back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link. One thing you might add is a source for the quote in the second paragraph. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Sep 10 '18 at 0:12
  • Do you mean something like "moving the goal posts?" Or do you mean something more like fraud? – user34017 Sep 10 '18 at 1:14
  • There's an English.SE that is probably a better fit for finding the right term for something. – virmaior Sep 10 '18 at 1:54
  • Thanks all. :~) – YoBra Jan 16 '19 at 2:02

Welcome to PSE.

I think there is a term for what you describe - certainly the phenomenon is real enough. It's the definist fallacy (in a loose sense of 'fallacy') or the fallacy of self-persuasive definition. I have in mind the defining or refining of a term so that it an object, event, state of affairs, once excluded, now falls within it.

I am looking for a country cottage, say. My search is in vain but I come across a rural bungalow which has roses around the door, diamond-pane windows, and sunflowers in the garden. I can readily persuade myself that this is a country cottage. I have self-persuasively defined or redefined the property as a country cottage.

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  • 1
    Thank you--though not the precise term I'm hunting for, this in itself is a serviceable phrase for the above (and related) phenomena. – YoBra Jan 16 '19 at 2:01
  • YoBra. Thanks for comment. My computer has been offline for a while or I would have replied sooner/ Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 22 '19 at 21:59

I don't have terms for you, but perhaps another way of looking at it might shed some light...

Looking for something is a dynamic process - its parameters can be rigidly or loosely defined at the outset, but adhering to those parameters may not be the primary need for the individual or any member of the group at any one time.

If a group is looking for drinkable water in the desert, for instance, this would likely be a primary need for every member of that group, taking priority over other needs until they succeed. If they come across water they know to be unsafe early in their search, they're unlikely to stop at this point. But the longer the search continues without success, the greater the chance that members of the group will choose to drink the unsafe water, ignoring safety parameters they believe to be 'currently unattainable' within a survivable time period. After drinking, they may choose to return to the search within the original parameters, or they may discard those 'unattainable' parameters and stop searching.

Beggars can't be choosers. When we sense our life on the line, fear motivates us to fight or flee, but these options are not available here. I don't think it's a matter of widening our definition but more likely narrowing our worldview, mentally fighting or fleeing from information that appears to threaten our chance of survival/success. If it is true that this water is not drinkable, then we still haven't found drinkable water, and our life is still threatened. If the group continues to believe that drinkable water according to the original parameters can be found, then they may die trying to find it. When motivated by fear (of death), it's often easier to convince ourselves that the water we have is drinkable, than that there is drinkable water out there to be found.

The decision we make to ignore parameters at any point in the search depends on what is believed or agreed on as the key motivation or primary need: is it to succeed in finding something, is it to have something, or is it the specific something itself? When our ego is threatened by a failure to find something, sometimes it is easier to believe that what we have found is that something, than to continue believing that the something we are looking for can be found.

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