Categorization is the tendency people classifying different objects and other people into different groups by common characteristics. This essay will focus on what is known and unknown about it so as to investigate why it does more harm than good. For disadvantages, it makes people perceive something, which is not true, by stereotype, primed schema, automation, and similarities, when people are categorizing. For advantages, it generates efficiency by simplification and can further help with human adaptation to the nearby environment. However, it is still unclear on how people deal with multiple categories and what happen to the other competing categories. Categorization clearly has quite a lot of disadvantages, which usually appear during the process in how people usually categorize, and makes people perceive something other than reality.
Firstly, categorization may contain stereotypes. Take racism as an example. In Correll, Park, Judd, and Wittenbrink’s experiment (2002), the Black or White targets, with guns or other objects, emerged in complex backgrounds while the participants were only asked to ‘shoot’ armed targets. They ‘shot’ the armed Blacks and ‘not shot’ the unarmed Whites more quickly. This shows that people mostly hold stereotypes towards the Black and the White that the former is much aggressive than the latter. The consequences of these stereotypes are particularly clear in law enforcement. When the police are carrying out their duties, they may mistakenly assume that a Black is going to commit a crime, so they take inappropriate action.
Edmondson Bell, and Nkomo (2003) agreed that the Blacks not only often encountered discrimination and injustices in daily lives, but also problems on fitting in the working environment, and obtaining mentors’ help. The Whites think they are ‘dirty’ and has lower degrees of profession. Hence, they are not willing to assist them, disregarding their potentials and abilities. With these difficulties, it is much harder for the Blacks to gain higher status in a company. To sum up, categorization leads to negative effects to the socially perceived by stereotypes and the social perceivers by inaccurate interpretations of social life.
Secondly, categorization may be influenced by primed schema. Schema is a cognitive representation including known information about objects and people. Take sexism as an example. In McKenzie-Mohr, and Zanna’s experiment (1990), after playing video games about female ‘objectification’, participants’ thoughts were primed to view women as sex objects and much willing to behave inappropriately to females. The reason to explain this phenomenon is that they fit women’s behaviours in the sexual schema, which is just activated by the video games. Hence, they tend to categorize women’s behaviours as sexy and remember their body-related features. In another more recent experiment done by Yao, Mahood, and Linz (2010), after watching non-violent pornography, participants were more sexually motivated and concerned the physical characteristics of females. Both research show that sexual priming, sexual schemas become much activated and cognitively accessible, so people are more likely to categorize women as sex objects. These lead to negative effects to both the socially perceived and the social perceivers. The former may face misunderstanding and unrespect, but the latter may give inappropriate responses and damage their own images, or even commit in crimes. To sum up, categorization is subjective and may induce inaccurate interpretations of social life.
Thirdly, categorization may include bias. Take appearance bias as an example. In 1986, the Newspaper, The Guardian, had featured an advertisement on a skinhead and a businessman. It looked like the skinhead quickly ran to the businessman and wanted to grab his briefcase. The truth was that the skinhead wanted to rescue him from falling bricks. People frequently assume that every skinhead is cruel because they are mostly stereotyped as behaving violently. This is the reason why they hypothesize that the recorded skinhead is the same and will grab other’s briefcase. People judge others by their appearance and generate negative effects on the socially perceived by mistakenly misunderstand their motives. In another experiment done by Nash, Bryer, and Schlaghecken (2010), participants recalled the provided deadlines better if it was from a trustworthy-looking reporter. This shows that appearance bias negatively impacts memory when they are receiving information from others. Therefore, people may categorize information, by whether they deserve remembering, before putting them into memory through appearance bias. It causes negative effects to the social perceivers by inaccurate predictions and gradual forgetting (which leads to incomplete memory). To sum up, categorization includes bias and results in forgetting and inaccurate interpretations of social life.
Fourthly, categorization may focus more on similarities but ignore uniqueness. Jenkins (2000) mentioned that categorization is a kind of cognitive internalization, which helps people in conceptualizing the social world in three orders, including the institutional, the interactional, and the individual. People can learn that laws are rules that we must obey (the institutional), others can be our friends (the interactional), and themselves are a member in the community (the individual). In Patterson and Bigler’s interactive experiment (2006), in order to investigate the influences of labelling and use of social groups on pre-school children, teachers in day care assigned the children into colour groups and used the colours to decorate the classroom. The children’s in-group and out-group attitude and their different opinions towards group members and non-group members were then generated. This shows that labelling and social groups implicit categorization in children’s minds. Groupings and colours can represent themselves, group members, and non-group members. They use them to categorize others and therefore produce fundamental positive and negative first impressions towards different people. These cause negative effects to the social perceivers as they commonly implement categorization by generalizing similarities but ignore the uniqueness of others, without understanding the actual differences between everyone. To sum up, categorization ignores uniqueness and further generates inaccurate interpretations of social life.
The above are some disadvantages of categorization. However, it still has some advantages.
One of the advantages is simplification. Blakeslee, Macknik, and Martinez-Conde (2011) thought that thinking was expensive and required brain activities, which took attention and energy away from other tasks, such as searching food and accompanies and avoiding potential dangers. Therefore, categorization is needed to prevent the mentioned negative consequences. Mayle (2013) asked Simon to categorize people in a bar. He tried to guess their nationalities by their appearance, whether they ordered wine, the size of their drinks, whether they were drunk, how they drank their drinks, whether they smoked, what they ordered for food, and how they behave when eating. In this situation, Simon has activated the content of suitable categories and put the targets into different sorts by the rule of thumb. Sometimes it is not possible for people to clarify every truth, so they depend on their knowledges in the common characteristics of typical members in a particular category. This kind of categorization is a fundamental cognitive ability, which benefits the social perceiver by quickly pigeonholing the targets and makes it less time-consuming and effortful. It also prevents information overload causing chaos and generates efficiency. To sum up, categorization can simplify the thinking processes which benefits the social perceiver.
Another advantage is the help with human adaptation to the nearby environment. In Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait, and Hertzman experiment (2012), the school-aged children tried to help a crying baby so as to calm him down. When they see a crying baby, they hear his crying sounds at the same time. The crying sounds activates the emotional category ‘sad’ in the children minds. They then assume the crying baby is feeling ‘sad’ because of some reasons that he needs help from others. Hence, after thinking about if they want to help, they decide to help. During these thinking processes, they categorize the crying baby into groups of ‘sad’ (as ‘crying’ usually means ‘sad’), and ‘requiring help’ (as something making the baby crying has to be removed). People apply the categorization skills in social conditions. When meeting others with white skin, they categorize them as ‘westerners’. For somebody who attach great importance to collective honour and neglect individual achievements, they categorize them as ‘easterners’. If someone smiles and waves their hands, they categorize them as ‘friendly’. These benefit the social perceivers to get used to unfamiliar people by quickly organizing them into groups. They then formulate socializing strategies, which assist them in building interpersonal relationships. To sum up, categorization can help human in adaptation of the environment.
The above are what people generally know about categorization. Nevertheless, they are still unclear about some processes in categorization. An ambiguity in categorization is how people deal with multiple categories. Take ‘the elderly’ as an example. He is a thin man named Dr. Jones who holds a stethoscope. With categories available, including sex, height, and occupation, which category should he belong to? Logically, he can be classified in terms of all categories. But which one of the categories will people choose as the criterion in order to categorize him?
Kunda and Thagard (1996) thought that he may simultaneously activate all applicable categories, so people may categorize him in all of these ways. This process is not only dispiriting, but also creates cognitive chaos and target confusion due to a large amount of information generated. Bodenhausen and Macrae (1998) had another idea that category selection may be promoted by low-level inhibition. A multiply categorizable target can activate all related categories in parallel and give rise to a match for mental dominance. The ‘winners’ will then become people’s preferred categories. To sum up, it is still unclear on how people deal with multiple categories but Kunda and Thagard (1996) thought that people would use all the categories while Bodenhausen and Macrae (1998) believed in category selection by low-level inhibition process. Further research is needed to find out the correct answer. Another ambiguity in categorization is what happen to the other losing categories after the mental dominance match. Bodenhausen and Macrae (1998) thought that they are substantially inhibited through category selection. Disturbing categories are moved away from our minds by spreading inhabitation. The perceiver’s motivation is also a decisive factor in determining which categories should be inhibited.
In Maner, Miller, Moss, Leo, and Plant’s experiment (2012), a mate-search prime and mate-guarding prime caused participants to categorize same-sex targets according to their physical attractiveness. This showed that people implicitly categorized social targets by their goal-relevant phenotypic traits displayed. In another provocative experiment by Sinclair and Kunda (1999), if participants received a positive feedback from a black doctor, they significantly inhibited the category ‘black’ and exhibited the category ‘doctor’. This showed that people were motivated to think he was competent. To sum up, further research is needed to investigate whether the losing categories are determined by the perceiver’s motivation or removed from cohnition.
To conclude, other than some uncertainties about multiple categories and fading categories, people do have much understanding towards categorization. Although it has both disadvantages and advantages, it does more harm than good. It generates efficiency by simplification and facilitates human adaptation to the environment, but it makes people perceive falsehood by stereotype, primed schema, automation, and similarities. These creates both negative and positive consequences to the social perceivers and the socially perceived.
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