Our thinking is a real machine to make categories. Keeps itself busy all the time trying to make sense of the data it collects from the environment in order to simplify them so that they can fit into our worldview. Categorization is precisely one of the most important operations of our thinking, but it can also be a double-edged sword that turns against us limiting our vision of the world.
What is categorical thinking?
Categorical thinking is that one based on the data it extracts from the environment and establishes categories in which practically everything around us fits. That kind of thinking allows us to differentiate, for example, a snake from a branch or a cat from a dog.
For a category to have practical value, it must meet two conditions:
1. Validity, since it does not make much sense to arbitrarily divide a homogeneous group because in this way we would further complicate our worldview.
2. Utility, since it must adapt to the context where we develop day by day. Although it makes sense for a zoologist to divide snakes into subcategories, the rest of the people simply need to recognize them to understand that they may face a potential danger.
The problem is that our thinking does not always work logically, but we often create and trust categories that are not valid and much less useful, so that they lead us to make bad decisions or consolidate prejudices. In that case, categorical thinking ends up creating illusions that we consider real, so they lead us to maladaptive behaviors.
The 3 errors of categorical thinking
1. Compression: Reducing world’s variety to categories
Categorical thinking is based on prototypes, so it ignores the full range of variations that exist within a category. In practice, it takes the common central features omitting differences. The problem is that when anything becomes part of a category, it loses its unique properties. When a grapefruit becomes part of the citrus category it loses properties, and loses them even more when we classify it as fruit.
That means that compression, although necessary to quickly orient us in the world, is a process that obviates the intrinsic wealth of individuality since it makes us close our eyes to peculiarities. The same happens when we apply categories to people.
In this sense, researchers from the universities of Utrech and Oregon asked a group of people to catalog women in different areas, taking into account only their silhouette, which varied from anorexia to obesity.
Participants saw women differently when they were labeled, even though their silhouettes were identical. For example, they assumed that the personality and lifestyle of “woman 7” were more similar to those of “woman 9” when both were labeled as obese, but without those labels, people made more distinctions between them.
That means that every time we assign a person a label or think that it belongs to a particular social group, we close our eyes to its uniqueness and we will be more likely to think of it in a stereotyped and prejudiced way.
2. Amplification: Exaggerating the differences
Categorical thinking contains other traps, in addition to compression. In fact, in some cases it leads us to exaggerate the differences between the different categories, which leads to the formation of stereotypes and leads us to draw inaccurate conclusions.
Amplification is a process by which we increase the more subtle differences between two categories to better distinguish them. This process is based on the need of our brain to seek coherence and order, in its reluctance to leave loose ends.
It has been appreciated, for example, that people affiliated with very different political parties tend to overestimate how extreme the political positions of the other are. The social masks under which they are presented make us exaggerating the views of the other, which feeds prejudices and makes understanding difficult because instead of building bridges, we build walls.
This exaggeration of the differences allows us to place the categories at opposite ends, well differentiated. The problem is that we run the risk of creating a caricature of certain groups, obviating the wealth and even the contradictions that each of them contains.
3. Fossilization: Getting stuck in categories
“The hard part is not finding new ideas, but escaping old ones”, wrote John Maynard Keynes. Categories lead to a fixed view of the world. They make us feel that everything is ordered and, therefore, give us an illusory sense of security.
Researchers at the University of Toronto demonstrated how harmful categorical thinking can be to our creativity. They asked 200 people to build the figure of an alien using Lego pieces. Some participants were given the pieces organized in groups and others were told to use them as they wanted. The result left no room for doubt: the people who were not given the categorized pieces built much more original and creative figures.
The existence of categories generates a functional fixation, a phenomenon that prevents us from going beyond what our mind has already cataloged. Therefore, it is likely that a child can find more original uses for a fork than an adult.
Fossilization, therefore, keeps us tied to the image of the world we have built, trapped in our own prejudices and stereotypes, with no possibility of changing because we have closed beforehand to change.
How to limit the damages of categorical thinking?
Categorical thinking is necessary. It helps us to form a structured, simple and relatively coherent image of the world that can be very useful in situations where we must react quickly, without thinking too much.
However, we must also be aware that it can deceive us, so even if we have already established certain categories, we must be open to new information that allows us expand or enrich existing categories, helping us to free ourselves from prejudices or stereotypes without sense.
We need to understand that we cannot get rid completely of categories, but we do not have to become their slaves by letting them limit our worldview and, therefore, lead us to make biased decisions in life.
For this we must cultivate the discoverer’s mentality, the one that starts from the known, but with the desire to discover new things that help us expand our vision of the world.
De Langhe, B. & Fernbach, P. (2019) The Dangers of Categorical Thinking. In: Harvard Business Review.
Kim, Y. J. & Zhong, C. (2017) Ideas rise from chaos: Information structure and creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes; 138: 15-27.
Foroni, F. & Rothbart, M. (2012) Category Boundaries and Category Labels: When Does A Category Name Influence the Perceived Similarity of Category Members? Social Cognition; 29(5): 547-576.