Thinking inside the boxes

One of the ways we make sense of that complex world we live in is by the creation of boxes. Many schemas we form are about “types” of people. Take a moment to think about how important it is that we’re able to do that. Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a foreign city, lost, in need of directions. Who will you approach? What language will you speak? Being able to quickly differentiate child from adult, native from tourist, police officer from thief is an essential skill. In other words, making and using categories is helpful in our complex world.


People can be categorized on the basis of countless social groups, including age, sex, race, religion, nationality, occupation, political affiliation, sports team affiliation, etc.

When we meet people, we tend to categorize them automatically based on whatever features are salient to us in the context. If there is only one man in a group we meet, his sex may jump out at us (“you know, that guy who was there…”) If we’re having a discussion about race, we’re likely to note race of the participants (“You know, what that Asian person said…”). In other words, features of the context interact with our current goals to influence how we see others.

The process of social categorization has a number of immediate consequences. Take a look at the following image:


We could label the people in it as a collection of individuals. If we do so, we are likely to notice both the things the people have in common, and the things that make them unique. If we give the crowd a label, though, we’re likely to look at the people differently. Let’s call them German fans. Suddenly we may start to focus on elements that the people have in common, and ignore many differences.

This is called within group assimilation. It’s the tendency to perceive a group of people as more similar than a collection of individuals. The simple action of labeling a collection of people as a group has perceptual consequences – it amplifies the similarities we see among people, which sets an important basis for stereotyping others. We can only generalize traits or characteristics across people, after all, if they are all (at least basically) alike.

Now let’s say that see a crowd that has TWO groups. Maybe Muslims and Christians. Once again there is a direct perceptual consequence. If we perceive people as belonging to two different groups, we amplify the differences we see between them, failing to notice or think about everything they have in common. This allows us to perceive polarization between groups which may exceed what actually exists.


Finally, let’s put these two effects together. Let’s say we’re watching a debate on the floor of the United States senate. Members of both parties speak. A few hours later we discuss the session with friends. Something interesting might happen – remember that we’re seeing members of the groups as more similar to each other than, perhaps, we should (within group assimilation) and as more different from the other group than, perhaps, they are (between group contrast). And the debate was lively with many people contributing. It was complex.

We may find that we don’t really remember which senator said what, but we certainly know which group did. That is, we might misattribute a quote to John McCain than was actually said by Mitch McConnell. Or we might be convinced that Elizabeth Warren said something that was actually said by Kamala Harris. Or maybe we just know that ‘a Republican’ or ‘a Democrat’ said something… Any version of this effect shows that we’re no longer processing information at the level of the individual. We’re processing the information at the level of the group. Members have become interchangeable. Anything we know about the group can be attributed then, to any individual member.

These three perceptual biases arise even without consideration of the self. We don’t have to be a member of any of these groups for the effects to occur. In other words, they are basic cognitive processes; self-protection and enhancement are not involved.

When the self is involved, other biases arise. Let’s say that we’re not just perceiving two groups, but we’re perceiving one group that we belong to (an ingroup) and another than we do not (an outgroup). Maybe we’re watching that senate debate as an affiliated Democrat or Republican. In this case, we’re likely to feel attachment and affiliation for one group more than the other. The need to feel good about the group may lead us to favor members of our group more than others. This is called ingroup favoritism, and we seem to show it even for groups with whom we are minimally identified. Although perhaps harmless if it just means that we smile more at someone “on our team,” it’s also a basis of prejudice.

Inherent limitations of the human mind set the basis for processes that can be extremely detrimental. And yet, they are also fundamentally human, arising out of the normal (not pathological) functioning. Stay tuned…


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