The illusion of understanding

During the 2016 US election, a friend of mine made critical comments about Hillary Clinton. His family, Hillary Clinton supporters, quickly asked him if he was a Bernie Sanders supporter...

Nick Taber
26 April 2018

Hillary Rodham Clinmton, Royal Festival Hall, London, Octiber, 2017. Dominic Lipinski/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Have we developed a habit that handicaps our ability to understand the world? This habit, it seems to me, is the impulse for people to try to quickly categorize what they encounter, as though categorization is entirely synonymous with understanding things. It appears to me that people seem to be falling into a trap of thinking that once you have found the “box” to put something in, you understand it. Categorizing a phenomenon may be an integral part of the process of understanding it. But it is disastrous, in my view, to assume that they are one and the same.

This appears in many different ways. One way is that, in response to a person’s actions, people look to a category that the person fits into to explain those actions, while doing so in a way that adds very little to their understanding of the phenomenon of interest. For example, around the 2016 election in the US, a friend of mine made some critical comments about Hillary Clinton. His family members, who were Hillary Clinton supporters, quickly asked him if he was a Bernie Sanders supporter, because, in their eyes, this would explain why he would criticize their preferred candidate. To explain his actions, they looked for a category to put him in which only confirmed their prejudices. To them, their way of making sense of things was not to look at the substance, but about looking at a category to explain things in a way that fits what they already knew about the world.

The categorization impulse manifests itself in many ways that don’t seem to be a problem, at least on the surface. Another example – I am frequently overseas, and often travel and work simultaneously. Someone recently asked me what I do and before I had the chance to explain very much, he asked, “So you are a digital nomad?” I didn’t quite know what this meant; I thought maybe he was talking about Mongolian yurt-dwellers with cell phones or the Sami in Lapland that order supplies on Amazon. When I finally understood, I said that perhaps I fit that definition, yes. But from my perspective, this category didn’t actually provide much information about myself and it probably obscured just about everything that I felt was interesting or significant that I would have otherwise answered. A few moments later, I mentioned that I write occasionally, and he said “oh, so you’re a content writer?”. I said, “How do you write something that isn’t content?” He had what seemed to me like an overdeveloped impulse to categorize…it was almost as though he felt that categorization is the task of any responsible person trying to make sense of things. I don’t question the sincerity of these intentions. I only question the efficacy of this as a means of making sense of the world. It was clear to me that despite the fact that this individual was very honestly and sincerely motivated by a simple desire to understand and relate to me, the process by which he was trying to do so actually prevented him from understanding much at all. And yet, this process is very very common. Uncertainty and complexity don’t feel comfortable for most people.

This ‘categoritis’ generally looks like this: we get a small piece of information, and then we swiftly search for a box or a category that fits, attaching all the properties in that box. Then, we feel that the task of understanding it is complete. I suspect that this process gives us a certain sense of gratification. It feels good to feel like we understand things. Uncertainty and complexity don’t feel comfortable for most people. I suppose that ‘categoritis’ is one way of coping with a distaste for complexity and uncertainty.

Of course, categorization may very well be an important part of understanding things. However, what I’m attempting to highlight here is a misuse of categorization that, it seems to me, has become a habit of society. This misuse would be in assuming that the simple act of categorization is in itself sufficient to understanding things.

If we were to agree that this kind of thinking and behavior is as widespread as I claim it is, it would likely be very harmful and greatly distort the intellectual wiring of society. This is particularly the case because a major effect of the ‘categoritis’ assumption is that it strengthens the hold that our biases have on how we see the world around us. if I am looking to quickly categorize a phenomenon of interest (thinking that this is all I need to understand it) then I will find a box to place it in that confirms my biases. The investigation stops there.

Another negative effect of this is that it can hold us back from personal growth. For example, if we put ourselves into certain boxes, then we only allow ourselves to do what the box allows: it breeds rationalizations like “I can’t do that because I’m a ‘this or that’ box” or “Elon Musk or Steve Jobs fit into the genius box which is why they do what they do…I fit into the x category so I can only do such and such (never mind considering what I really want to do, independent of the box)”. Similarly, people may try to make themselves look better by placing themselves into a box of interest that they know will look good in the eyes of other people who also see things in narrow boxes.

Where does this tendency towards ‘categoritis’ come from? I don’t know for certain, but there are a few clues that could point us in the right direction. First, there is a great deal of variation between people in this regard (despite the seeming omnipresence of ‘categoritis’). Some people (though, admittedly, I personally don’t know very many) don’t appear to engage in categoritis, per se, very much at all and others only moderately. What is behind this variation? Because of this variation, I would challenge someone that writes off this phenomenon as “well, that’s just what humans do — they put each other in boxes.”

Additionally, our culture, I believe, furthers this impulse. I often hear something to the effect of, “If you can’t explain something briefly and simply, you don’t understand it very well” or “the smartest people are those that can explain things extremely simply”. What easier way is there to explain something simply than giving someone a box with all of the characteristics prepackaged. My Facebook feed right now provides an example: “Gaia is like Netflix, but instead of entertainment you get enlightenment.” If you have a box, you don’t need to explain much because the box puts all of those in the person’s mind. There is not necessarily anything wrong with doing this, but there could be. I think we should heed Einstein’s words here: “Everything should be as simple as possible. But not simpler."

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