Human beings really like to categorize things. We categorize coffee brews, nuts and bolts, cars, plants, berries, galaxies, and even other people. Doing so helps us think about an incredibly complex world and helps us make better decisions. I know what kind of coffee I like for which methods of making coffee, so I can simplify my decision process to get a good cup when I am at a new coffee shop. Sorting nuts and bolts allows us to find the perfect fastener for each and every situation, meaning we can ultimately make more complex cars and trucks that fit the specific category we need for our purposes. And when we are looking to make a pie, knowing a little bit about different categories of berries helps us make a delicious pie. Categorization is essential for human survival, recreation, and scientific advancement. It is an exceptional tool for humanity.
But categorization can also be troublesome, especially when we start trying to categorize things that don’t seem to want to fit within our pre-defined categories. Nuts and bolts can be manufactured specific to our predefined categories, but not everything fits nicely into the categories we adopt and use every day. Nature’s creations, as well as man’s creations, can blend across multiple categories. Some plants, animals, seeds, fruits, geological formations, and clouds can all be very distinct and easy to categorize. A mountain is very different from a valley which is very different from the ocean. But All of these items can have fuzzy distinctions and can overlap in complex ways.
This is often the case with people. As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “the problem with categorization is that it often goes beyond the statistics. For one thing, when people are pressured, distracted, or in an emotional state, they forget that a category is an approximation and act as if a stereotype applies to every last man, woman, and child.” Pinker is describing the consequences of using a simplifying process that doesn’t fit everything we want to put in the category. Humans rarely fit perfectly within the categories we create, and there can be bad consequences when we act as if they do. On top of bad categorization, we also forget that the categories we put people into don’t always matter very much. When we forget these things, we can treat people poorly and make poor judgments about the categories we have placed people into. This takes what is a useful tool of humanity and turns it into a dangerous shortcut that can cause serious harm for real life people.