How Categories Affect Our Perceptions

The New York Times: “What we think we’re looking at can alter what we actually see. More broadly, when we put things into a category, research has found, they actually become more alike in our minds. ‘Similarity serves as a basis for the classification of objects,’ wrote the noted psychologist Amos Tversky, ‘but it is also influenced by the adopted classification.’ The flip side holds: Things we might have viewed as more similar become, when placed into two distinct categories, more different.”

“Categorization affects not just how we perceive things, but how we feel about them. When we like something, we seem to want to break it down into further categories, away from the so-called basic level. Birders do not just see ‘birds,’ gardeners do not just see ‘flowers’; they see specific variations. The more we like something, the more we like to categorize it.”

“When we struggle to categorize something, we like it less … Even if we seem to like easy categorization, we’re not rigid about the categories themselves. A few decades ago, for example, the idea of beer in America meant a pale-colored lager, strongly carbonated, low in alcohol and lacking flavor. Following the craft beer revolution, the very category of beer has expanded enormously, with any number of subcategories … Categories can help us enjoy things for what they are. When existing categories do not suffice, we simply invent new ones … The great peril of this reliance on categorizing is that we could miss something that lies outside our perception.”

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