Why We Use Social Categorization

Stereotypes emerge because these are the most readily available pieces of information and to conserve cognitive resources, we use these stereotypes or prototypes to process information with heuristics. But the real question here is: why do we engage in social categorization at all? Why don’t people use other ways to make sense of the world?

The answer is actually convenience. Social categorization is a process that is intimately associated with heuristics. We use social categories because we don’t want to expend all our cognitive resources in analyzing one or two situations.

From the perspective of self-conservation, this makes a lot of sense, too. Who would want to spend hours thinking of something when a thin slice of the situation can be used to create a valid inference? No one – because everyone is preoccupied with more important issues and activities and there has to be prioritization.Conservation of cognitive resources is just one good reason to stick to social categories. The second reason is that when a person has a mastery of many social categories, he is able to organize and process information more succinctly and more efficiently than folks who do not make use of social categories more frequently.

Social categories allow us to assign internal traits to specific classes of objects, events, people, behavior, etc.

Though the use of stereotypes can sometimes be misleading, it still remains that we are rational individuals who can refine our own perspective of the world. We can always choose to ignore stereotypes if we want to; however, this does not mean that everyone else is interested in discarding stereotypes.

Social categories are so convenient to use that we actually engage in categorization even if we consciously don’t want to use categories. For example, if we meet a foreign student from a faraway country, we try to suspend our social categories because we know full well that these may not apply to the foreign student.However, because we have to acknowledge the social categories first before we can suspend them from conscious thought, we cannot avoid using these categories even for a few seconds.

Social scientists have been able to identify three unique triggers that actually encourage a person to use social categories unconsciously:

The ease at which inferences can be created with the help of social categorization also means that people have a tendency to refer to social categories whenever appropriate situations present themselves (i.e. when a new person is introduced).

Since we refer to social categories often, we also have a tendency to utilize stereotypical information even when we are simply evaluating an event or a person. There is a tendency for a person to develop selective memory, too.

For example, if we met someone new and someone told you that this person was a truck driver; specific traits of this person would be more accessible than others. For example, if the person was talking on his cellphone and smoking at the same time, the most striking trait (and therefore, the most information ally accessible one) would be the smoking trait since there is a stereotypical association between smoking and truck drivers (the same way that thick rimmed glasses are associated with academically inspired individual).

As you can see, social categorization actually affects a person‟s ability to focus on certain things. If we learned that a person belong to Social Category A, we would no longer pay attention to traits that belong to Social Categories B, C & D.So in essence, when a person makes use of social categories, he is actually making use of different “lenses” that modify his perspective of things. Social categories also have a profound effect on people’s impression and assimilation of information as well as their behavior.

Simply put: if a social category is used on a person long enough and if there is no resistance from the other person, then the social category would be eventually used as a basis for a new self-schema.

So if a student was always tagged as a “slow learner” and there were always zero expectations about the student, then eventually, the student would find no reason to improve himself and he will adapt the traits of the social category that was being used to classify him.

Inversely, a person who has always been regarded as a successful worker would find ways to live up to people’s expectations as this would also have a positive impact on his self-concept.

There is also neurological proof that social categories/social impressions and actual actions have a big connection – according to research, one region of the premotor cortex is activated when a person is regarding something (i.e. evaluating something) and when he is finally doing whathe was simply observing before. Behavioral assimilation, which can result from a person‟s exposure to social categories and prototypes, can have an adverse effect on a person‟s academic performance, too.

Negative stereotyping can lead to underperformance as evidence by many studies that proved that when a person conforms to social categories that relate to sex, race, etc., they would unconsciously underperform to conform to the stereotype.

For example, it has been discovered in one study that women tend to underperform in Mathematics exams because the general stereotype is that women are better at language than men, but men are better at mathematics than women.