The problem with categorical thinking

Synapse 14: It's time to give up the false dichotomies in our politics

Last Thursday, the main two candidates in the U.S presidential election—Joe Biden and Donald Trump—faced off in the last debate of 2020. As expected, the candidates often took completely opposite stances on issues such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” During the debate, I couldn’t help but think that there must be a range of possibilities between the “either-or” we are so often presented with. “Either” socialized healthcare “or” private insurance. “Either” no gun regulation “or” a ban on guns. One could argue that the format of a debate necessitated a simplified view of the issues, but I think this dichotomous thinking extends in our political discourse outside of debates. What could explain our baffling lack of regard for the continuum between two sides of an issue?

For one, “either-or” thinking is consistent with the phenomenon of categorical thinking which has been studied extensively in psychology and neuroscience literature. Categorical thinking is very popular—and for good reason. It can help us remember strings of numbers by, for example, chunking a phone number into a three-digit number and a four-digit number. Rather than think about a phone number as seven discrete numbers, it’s easier to think about it as two numbers. In the same way, rather than think about all of the possibilities between unregulated fracking and a ban on fracking, it’s easier to think about just two possibilities. However, as great as categorical thinking can be as a mental shortcut, it can also be problematic.

The Consequences of Categorical Thinking

The negative consequences of categorical thinking have been studied particularly in a social context. Categorical thinking has been shown to be an underlying mechanism for stereotyping and prejudice. Categorical thinking also contributes to cognitive biases about differences between groups. For example, boundaries between categories are often thought of as stronger than they actually are and boundaries within categories are thought of as weaker than they actually are. As one example, one study used teachers to group students by t-shirt color. After grouping the students, the students were surveyed and researchers found that the students started to see similarities within their T-shirt color group and differences in other groups even though t-shirt color is completely arbitrary.

So even though putting ideas into discrete categories is convenient, just the act of creating these “either-or” buckets hampers our ability to think critically about issues and possibly also contributes to the political polarization I wrote about last week.

The benefits of thinking along a continuum

So if we are to avoid categorical thinking, what is the alternative?

One is continuum thinking which has the theoretical social benefit of encouraging us to see people as individuals because there is much more opportunity to differentiate people to a degree rather than stereotyping people into groups or categories.

It’s easy to see how continuum thinking could also be beneficial to how we think about policy. Categorizing all democratic healthcare reform proposals as “socialist” does nothing to contribute to our understanding of the pros and cons of the many different avenues we could take to fix our broken healthcare system. Similarly, on the issue of fracking, continuum thinking would force us to confront a reality in which we both allow fracking to continue because it is critical to US infrastructure and economy while also transitioning to a less-risky and more sustainable alternative energy source. Without categorical thinking polluting our discourse, false dichotomies present themselves and common ground can be reached.

One interesting study demonstrating the benefit of continuum thinking was one in which subjects were shown pictures of celebrities as well as their political affiliation. To one group of test subjects, the celebrities were categorized as “conservative”, “moderate conservative”, “moderate liberal” and “liberal.” In another group, the celebrities were labeled on a numerical continuum between conservative and liberal. When categorization was used, the test subjects reported the celebrities as more different than when the continuum was used.

When we think about our politics as a continuum rather than stark categories, we may be able to ward off stereotypical thinking, prejudice, polarization, and other frustrations.

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