Categories Are Approximations

My last post was on the human tendency to put things into categories and how that can cause problems when things don’t fit nicely into the categories we have created. We like to define and group things based on shared characteristics, but those characteristics can have undefined edge cases. This isn’t a big deal when we are classifying types of mushrooms or shoes, but it can be a problem when we are classifying people and when we extend particular qualities of a group of people to everyone perceived as part of that group.
This post takes the danger in that idea a step further. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people tend to moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and condemnable ones to their enemies.” We create groups and view them as binaries. If we step back, we realize this doesn’t make sense when evaluating people, but nevertheless, we do it. We view an entire group of people as good or bad based on how we categorize them and based on a few salient traits of the category.
Pinker continues, “people tend to essentialize groups. As children, they tell experimenters that a baby whose parents have been switched at birth will speak the language of her biological rather than her adoptive parents.” When we get older we realize this is not the case, but it hints at a general disposition that humans have. We don’t focus highly on environment and contextual factors for people. We assume that essential characteristics of the group they belong to, whether or not those characteristics are actually valid, apply to every member, even if members are separated from the group and placed in a new context.
Categorizing people can end up with us placing people in a specific frame of reference that denies their individuality and humanity. We see people as inherently geared toward certain dispositions, simply because they share characteristics with other people we assume to have such dispositions. From this categorizing and these harmful tendencies follow xenophobia and racism. We wish to be seen as an individual ourselves, but we put others into categories and judge them to be inherently good or bad. We assume good people are all like us, and that all people like us are bad. Conversely, we assume all people unlike us are in some way bad, or that all bad people are unlike us. This oversimplified thought process fuels polarization and a host of negative thinking shortcuts that we have to overcome to live in a peaceful, equitable, and cooperative society.

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