Thinking in Categories
One-way language works is by sorting words into class types. A word, such as “chair” is an object that has a basic commonality with all chairs. When we say “chair,” the mind goes to the “Chair” category, a grouping that all chairs share in common. To understand the actual chair under consideration, we would begin to sort out the similarities and differences between this particular chair and all chairs. That’s the way the mind works to create and use language. We have general categories of nouns (things) and verbs (actions.) We place what we see into these categories, and, once they are placed, we then consider the unique differences a particular item has with the traits of the general category.
This way of thinking makes the world simple to negotiate. We don’t have to rediscover the sink, the door, the TV, the car, the building, and so on. Our minds can quickly know what these objects are and have a sense of what is going on.
However, too often, thinking in categories obscure accurate perception. Too often, we think we know something before we actually know it. We adopt a “this looks like that” mentality, rather than observe what is before us. And because of that, we distort reality.
In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport related prejudice to categorical thinking. Because we think in terms of generalized categories, Allport suggested that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. He wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibility avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”
While the mind will run on automatic, we have the added control of observation and reason. Here is the mix: three forces in play: automatic categorization, observation, and reason. In a way, sometimes they are in competition, especially when observation and reason contradict the attributes of some category the mind has generated.
It is easier to give in to the assumptions of the category than to observe more closely, and from that, use reason to come to a conclusion. It is easier to be prejudice than not. Prejudice means you have come to conclusions BEFORE you observe, which is completely different from true judgment, in which you reach a conclusion AFTER you have looked at facts and evidence.
You see a white person, and you think white race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. You see a black person, and you think black race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. Your mind instantly puts people into an assortment of categories. We need to understand that the mind is just doing one of its jobs. Its other jobs include observation and reason.
If you are an inner-city young black man, you may have a category we could call hostile police. Whenever you see a policeman, or a police car, your mind may make an automatic association of unfair treatment, danger, and antagonism. If you are a policeman working in the inner city, you may have a category we could call gang member. When you see a young black man, your mind may make an automatic association of life-threatening danger, violence, crime, guns, and antagonism. These conclusions are not a product of considered thought, but what seems like an instinctive survival mechanism.
Each side can blame the other without considering the dynamic in play. Each side is tied to their concept of the other. From this, a pattern of behavior develops that reinforces each group’s impression of the other. The more the police act antagonistically, the more the young black man sees the police as his enemy. The more the young black man acts antagonistically, the more the police see the young back man as their enemies. Each side will have real examples to prove their point, which entrenches their fixed concepts.
This structure leads to a destructive cycle: a policeman shoots an unarmed young black man. He seems to get away with it. The black community protests. The protests begin peacefully, but soon, some who are more hostile, become violent. This leads the police to feel more defensive. Some individuals assassinate some members of the police, which reinforces to the police that they are in danger. And on it goes. Calls to reason seem weak in light of the mind’s automatic reactionary impulse. What makes it hard to resolve the situation is that people, unbeknownst to themselves, are players in a system, a vicious cycle fueled by how the mind categorizes.
Each side has legitimate complaints. It is true that gangs exist in the inner city. These gangs are dangerous. It is true that some police members are prejudice against black people, especially young black men. It is true that black people have a higher rate of being stopped by the police than white people. In some locations, it is five times higher. It is true that some black men are members of gangs. Most are not. The mind says guilty before proven innocent. The problem cannot be solved by its own terms.
What needs to happen is observation and reason over habitual categorization. Prejudice comes from mindless automatic categorizing based on conceptual generalizations. Another way to describe this is prejudice is an example of not being in touch with reality. Rather than see reality as it is, including actual risk assessment, a worst-case scenario generates an emotional reaction. People feel they are in danger, and act defensively with increased hostility as the cycle escalates. Each side claims that the other side is at war with them.
It is one thing to have a concept that your mind assumes is true. It is another to have a concept that is tied to your identity. Observation and reason can overturn an inaccurate concept. But it takes more than that when identity is tied to the concept. Sometimes, no amount of objective facts and evidence can change the concept. The reason is that anything that contradicts the concept seems like a personal attack or a threat to one’s existence. That is because some concepts and beliefs are tied to a person’s identity. Of course, as we have said before, you are not your beliefs or concepts. This understanding may help to overcome the feeling of threat when a deeply held belief or concept is challenged.
Beliefs about others, especially groups (or tribes,) can also become fixed as if those ideas are inextricably tied to your own identity. The older you get, the tendency is to get fixed in your ways. Once you settle into a worldview, it because harder and harder to change your mind. Your mind can become entrenched into rigid, inflexible, and unyielding concepts that are resistant to change, defying logic and good sense. This is not a good pattern.
Age, alone, doesn’t cause this, for many of the world’s most creative people have become more and more flexible and open as they have gotten older.
Knowing how the mind works, that it is more apt to automatically jump to conclusion based on prejudice, put special focus on observation and reason. This is a good discipline one can develop over time and practice.