Our thinking is a real machine for creating categories. He is always busy trying to make sense of the data he collects from the environment to simplify it so it can fit our worldview. Categorization is precisely one of the most important operations of thought, but it can also be a double-edged sword that turns against us by limiting our view of the world.
What is categorical thinking?
Categorical thinking is that which, based on the data it extracts from the environment, establishes categories into which practically everything that surrounds us is inserted. This type 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 doesn't make much sense to arbitrarily divide a homogeneous group because this would further complicate our worldview.
2. Utility, since it must adapt to the context in which we move every day. While it makes sense for a zoologist to divide snakes into subcategories, the rest of the people simply have to recognize them to understand that they could face danger.
The problem is that our way of thinking does not always work logically, but we often create and trust invalid and not very useful categories that lead us to make bad decisions or to consolidate prejudices. In that case, categorical thinking ends up creating illusions that we consider real, thus leading us to develop maladaptive behaviors.
The 3 errors of categorical thinking
1. Compression: reduce the variety of the world 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 core characteristics and does not consider the differences. The problem is that when something becomes part of a category, it loses its unique properties. When a grapefruit becomes part of the citrus category it loses its properties and loses even more when we classify it as a fruit.
This means that compression, although necessary to quickly orient ourselves in the world, is a process that obviates the intrinsic richness of individuality because it blinds us 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 categorize women in different areas, taking into account only their line, which ranged from anorexia to obesity.
Participants saw women differently when they were labeled, even though their lines were identical. For example, they assumed that the personality and lifestyle of "woman number 7" were more similar to that of "woman number 9" when both were labeled obese, but without the label, people differentiated more carefully.
This means that whenever we label a person or think they belong to a particular social group, we close our eyes to their uniqueness and are more likely to judge them in a stereotypical and biased way.
2. Amplification: exaggerating the differences
Categorical thinking contains other pitfalls besides 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 to drawing 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 our brain's need to seek coherence and order, in its reluctance to leave things unfinished.
It has been seen, 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 exaggerate the opinions of the other, this feeds prejudices and makes understanding difficult because instead of building bridges, we build walls.
This exaggeration of differences allows us to place categories at opposite, well-differentiated ends. 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 moving away from the old ones," wrote John Maynard Keynes. The categories lead to a fixed view of the world. They make us feel that everything is in order and thus create an illusory sense of security.
Researchers at the University of Toronto showed, for example, how harmful categorical thinking can be for our creativity. They asked 200 people to build an alien figure using Lego pieces. Some participants were given the pieces organized in groups and others were told to use them freely as they wanted. The result left no room for doubt: the people who were not given the pieces sorted by category 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, a child is likely to 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 prejudices and stereotypes, without the possibility of changing because we have closed ourselves in advance to change.
How to limit the damage of categorical thinking?
Categorical thinking is necessary. It helps us to form a structured, simple and relatively coherent picture of the world which can be very useful in situations where we have to react quickly, without thinking too much.
However, we must also be aware that it can play tricks on us, so even if we have already established certain categories, we must be open to new information that allows us to expand or enrich existing categories, helping us to free ourselves from meaningless prejudices or stereotypes. .
We must understand that we cannot completely free ourselves from categories, but we must not become slaves to them by allowing them to limit our view of the world and, therefore, lead us to make bad decisions.
For this we must cultivate the mentality of the explorer, the one that starts from the known, but with the desire to discover new things that help us expand our vision of the world.