First of all, it’s basically necessary- it’s been built into our genes as a way to help us survive. Because if you think about it, not being able to recognize patterns and organize experiences and objects into categories would make it pretty hard to live at all, even at the most basic
levels. Take food for example. Without the ability to categorize, you can’t even determine what is and is not edible. You’ll just go around putting random things into your mouth and hoping that you don’t drop dead. So, in order to find food, you have to be able to recognize that, hey, that shiny red thing on this tree looks similar to that other shiny red thing I ate yesterday. You know, it tasted pretty good. I think I’ll try that again. And then you have energy, and you get to keep on living!
Conversely, you also have to be able to recognize what to avoid. So if you eat a few bright purple berries from a bush and spend the next week expelling the entire contents of your digestive tract, you need to be able to put two and two together and recognize that berry again so you can avoid another week of misery and possibly death. To do this requires the ability to put the things around you into at least two categories: “tiny purple berries of death” and “not tiny purple berries of death.”
Of course food isn’t the only thing important to survival. We also need to recognize other things, such as animals, that can help or hurt us. If we see a crocodile, for example, we have to be able to remember our last crocodile encounter so we can make the wise decision to stay far away. Organizing also helps us when it comes to something that we haven’t seen before. Accordingly, we may later run across an alligator and note that, although different from the crocodile, this particular animal is similar enough that extreme caution should be used until more specific information can be obtained.
Just like animals can be helpful or dangerous, so can members of our own species. Accordingly, we make these same judgments and categories when we encounter people. Meeting a person for the first time, you may think, wow, that big, tall, muscular guy could probably snap my neck without even trying. Maybe I should be careful around him. Or, you may think, wow, look how scrawny and bony that guy is. I don’t think he could hurt me. And so you do the same thing with other readily observable characteristics. What a person is wearing, what they’re doing, who they’re around, what kind of facial expressions they’re making, all contribute to that initial impression that helps you to decide whether this person is dangerous or approachable.
Now, these initial observations are completely natural and can be really helpful when you’re trying to decide whether the fat, balding man in the van really has candy. Problems come about, however, when we fail to allow room for error and alteration of our categories. If you see a girl in your class with multiple piercings, wearing all black, and sitting alone in the corner, for example, you may initially think that she’s scary and up to no good. Maybe you get partnered together for an assignment, however, and discover that she’s actually really funny, volunteers at an orphanage, and is basically not scary at all. If you don’t take the time to test your categories and allow things to move around from “possibly scary” to “really friendly” or “definitely deadly,” then your organization method is flawed and not doing anyone any good.
Flawed or rigid categories, then, are what lead to really big problems, particularly when it comes to our thoughts on other people. Racism, sexism, ageism, and basically any form of prejudice or stereotype against a certain kind of person is a direct result of forming an initial
opinion and both refusing to alter that category based on actual information and also generalizing so that anyone even a little bit like that initial impression gets forced into the same category.
So, in summary, categorizing and looking for patterns are the basic skills that allow us to organize and therefore interact successfully with the world around us. We take a previous experience and use the knowledge we gain from it to help us make decisions when we come across similar situations in the future. Because these categories are mental constructs and not inherent to the world around us, there are certainly flaws to this system, which can lead to misjudgments and bad decisions, but on the whole we really couldn’t do without it, so all we can do is try to be aware of these limitations and watch out for times when life is more complicated than our categories and patterns will allow for.