Why the human obsession with categorising things?

Is it a cause or an effect of where we are as a species, or is it just an inevitable consequence of having to deal with large volumes of information.

It gets me down sometimes; a person isn’t allowed to be just a person, they have to be a British or American or Afghani person, or a Christian or a Muslim or a Sikh person, or a Homosexual or Heterosexual person, or a Black or White person, I find that these pigeonholes used to describe people way oversteps their usefulness.

Also, why do we have such a fixed idea of which categories are exclusive? have we forgotten about Venn diagrams?

It makes me physically sick when I see a newspaper headline that says “5000 killed in WTC disaster, 300 of them British” (I live in the UK) - should I somehow consider the 4700 non-British lives lost as being worth less simply because they didn’t live locally?

Honestly, I think this obsessive tidiness has gone too far, why do we do it?

When I saw the title of your thread, I wanted to write a light riposte, but now that I’ve read it, I only want to agree with you. I’ve felt the exact same way. Here, in the US, on a random news report of a disaster in some faraway land, we hear that 400 people were killed, 12 Americans. Ah, I think, of all the people killed, 12 were important. I hate that implication. Labels have their purposes. Classifying items is an important cognitive and communicative event. But there are surely times when those categories are totally irrelevant.

Okay, I’m totally talking through my hat, here, but a couple of wild stabs:

  1. We want to protect “we” and fight against “they” because we want to protect people who carry our genes. Patriotism, class identification, maybe even political affiliation, all create emotional bonds exploit the instinct to protect the family and weed out unrelated competition.

  2. We categorize because in many circumstances, that’s a very efficient thing to do.

A tiger eats your brother. You observe this and decide, “Hmmm. Better be afraid of big orange stripey things in the future.” Smart decision. Extending the benefit of the doubt to the next tiger you meet would put a quick end to your enlightened attitude, and probably your genes, too.

Then you see black guy mugging people on TV, and the same part of your brain thinks, “Hmmm. Better be afraid of black people.” Not so smart decision–but it was a good way of thinking on the savannah (yes, I know there weren’t any tigers on the savannah), and I guess there hasn’t been enough negative selective pressure to weed this instinct, as applied to people, out of us.

But other categories are still useful to us. You see a police uniform, you know the guy in the uniform has certain characteristics–he’ll help you if you’re lost, he’ll probably yell at you if you jaywalk in front of him. And so on.

Slightly off topic but still categorisation.

Not to reopen old wounds, but I recall that Lt. William Calley, following his part in the My Lai massacre in 1968, was charged with something really peculiar, like ‘murder of persons of Oriental origin’ or something like that.

Does anyone know the exact wording of the charge? I’ll post this elsewhere if there is a problem.

If the news only said “some” of the victims were British, I can’t help but think that people would be calling the newspapers to ask “how many?” Like it matters. Does anyone really say, “oh, only x% of them were from my country, so it doesn’t bother me so much then.” maybe the papers are just giving people what they want. Sorry, I can’t think of why we feel this “need” to categorize and look at numbers.

In the case of things like the WTC attack, I’m only prepared to consider the 5000 victims as 5000 groups, each containing one unique irreplaceable person.

I can see that there are applications for demographics, especially in business/commerce, don’t get me wrong, but I feel that they intrude too far into our personal lives and thoughts.

Of the hundreds of people that you know, are any two of them exactly alike?

Although thinking about it’ I suppose the justification for the news reports saying “5000 dead; 300 British” would be that people from Britain who had relatives travelling in the NY area would want to have some idea of how likely it is that the relatives were involved. Still sickens me though.

Heck, you’re being too PC.
I’ve read that when you pigeonhole people you are relieved of the work of thinking.
It’s a lazy method of defining your surroundings.

PC? Hmmm, maybe, but it’s something that I try to avoid; political correctness is a way of blinkering yourself too.

I’ve thought about that a bit more now and no, it’s not political correctness.

PC (as I understand it) is to make assertions such as “Black and white people are equal”, “Homosexual behaviour is as valid as heterosexual”, “Women are entitled to the same rights as men”.

I want to question the validity of placing things incategories in the first place, not the validity of comparing categories; to wait until you know a person before deciding what they are like, to measure people by what we know, rather than what we assume. Of course, I’m not suggesting that this sort of thing is practical for businesses and governments, but for us as individuals, in our daily lives, why not?

Could it be that this is partially the way our brain functions? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that categorization is a GOOD thing or that it can’t be overcome. However, it’s necessary for many purposes to store information compartmentally. We use this on the most basic principles.

“Ugh, Bonk know these berries good to eat. But These berries poisonous. Berries with yellow stems good. Berries with white spots bad.”

I think it’s possible that such sorting is simply human nature. I think it IS just a lazy (possibly read “efficient”?) way of defining our surroundings. The ways we now assign “good” or “bad” to those categories is outrageous. And the way we now use it to create an “us and them” mentality is useless. But I’m not sure the simple act of sorting and categorization can ever be unlearned.


I think it can be unlearned, or at least attenuated by conscious effort. We have instincts, but we have intellect that can be trained to overcome instincts.

You know, I hope so. I agree that we don’t need to act on instinct. I hope you don’t think I was suggesting that hatred or racism was a “natural” phenomenon. I don’t think it has to be. But I do find it interesting to think about the ways we categorize OTHER things. It seems like the only way of defining and sorting our world in some ways. I’m not sure. I wonder where to look for information on the subject?


Or as someone else so succinctly said just this morning, “Don’t believe everything you think.” (Sorry, I can’t give proper credit here, I suck at remembering names.)

I would nitpick that there is a difference between instinct and learned behavior, and that it’s not so wise to confuse the two. Learned behavior CAN be unlearned and in many cases should. Racism, as an example, is not an instinct, although it may be so deeply learned as to seem so.

Describing something as ‘just a person’ is itself another form of categorisation.

What you are really arguing against is precision in the use of language. More meaningful questions would be whether such precision in any particular case is (1) accurate and (2) relevant. As so often, that depends on the context.

To me, that sounds like the sort of soundbite you get from Edward De Bono (who I happen to admire somewhat).

** sure, there is a difference, although some of the posts above suggest that categorising things might be instinctive, if it has been linked to a survival criteria in the past.

Fair enough, but I needed some sort of terminology, anyway it’s a categorisation that (IMO) indicates that we don’t know much about the person, rather than possibly fooling ourselves that we do know what they are like based on demographic data.

My daughter asked me once (she was 4 years old at the time) why our next-door neighbours have different skin to us and why they never go to church.
I had to think; I could have said 'Oh, they are Asian Muslims", but what sort of a useful answer is that?
It challenged me to reassess the way I think and in the end (and I’m quite happy with this as an answer), I came up with “everybody is different from everybody else, for all sorts of different reasons, that’s what makes it such an interesting world” - this might sound trite and PC, but I honestly believe it; I shouldn’t make judgements about people based on assumptions, to do so causes more problems than it solves.

The only sure thing you can say about a man is that he’s male; the only sure thing that you can say about a black man is that he’s male and black, and so on; the more you extrapolate from these, the less reliable are yourconclusions.

Oh. You wanted an answer to YOUR question :slight_smile:

I dunno, I still think categorizing is learned, not instinctive. It may be instinctive to make a distinction between two different things, but what we do with that information is still learned behavior.

WRT the headline that upset you, my guess here is that this was a way for the media to bring this tragedy close to home for people outside the US – as in “don’t think of this as something that happened to ‘someone else’”

WRT your thoughts about political correctness, we could open a whole 'nother thread on that subject alone. For this thread, let me just say that I think this PC is a decent ideal that has gone way too far and has created a lingual shift.

And of course as the late Charles Fort observed, no matter how comprehensive one’s catagorization system is, there is always some damn-ed thing popping up which just doesn’t fit anywhere.

While this could spur the development of more versatile catagorizations, or an appreciation of the basic futility of catagorization, in practice it tends to lead to a lot of angry hammering square pegs into round holes.

Well, we need categories to make any sort of intellectual sense out of the world. They’re not intrinsically a bad thing - it just depends how you use them.

To take the “5000 killed, 300 of them British” thing - you can see that, not as setting aside those 300 as “more important”, but as saying to the British public, “Look! This thing affected people in YOUR category too!” - which makes it more immediate and relevant (for some).

Also, people in the various categories get to define, to some extent, what they mean. We’ve had several excellent efforts round here lately reminding us that “Muslim” does not equate to “homicidal fanatic who hates Westerners and will kill to prove it”. Similarly, if someone were to refer to me as a “Brit”, I’m inclined to respond along the lines of “Yes, I am; I believe in justice, equality under the law, and the liberties of the subject; furthermore I shall never, never, never be a slave, oh, and I know how to spell ‘colour’, too.” All of which tells my hypothetical interlocutor something about me and what I believe “Britishness” to be - and maybe it shifts his/her view of what the “Brit” category means.

So, I think categories are valuable, and they have their place in the universe of discourse - up to a point. I agree that thinking of people solely in terms of what category you can put them in is a bad idea - particularly if you never revise your ideas of what these categories mean.

The human brain is a phenominal pattern finder, to a fault. We see faces on Mars and devils in smoke that aren’t there and we catagoize things into neat little groups. This is just a part of intelligence. This feature of our brains is great for analysis, i.e. “figuring things out” but can go a little far sometimes.

There’s also a need to create an us-ness which gives comfort. When I’m in the L.A. airport, the Southern Californians are “us” and the NorCal folks are “them.” When we land in NYC, the Californians are “us” and that group of guys from Alabama are “them.” Then we fly to London, Americans=us, Brits=them. In Frankfort, US+Brits=us, Germans=them. We all go to Tokyo and Westerners=us, Asians=them. After all of this bullshit I go back to work. There are 20 people in the building all from the same city, Engineers=us, Sales=them.