How Spectral thinking can overcome pitfalls of Categorical thinking

Categorical thinking suppresses similarities and amplifies differences. It also inadvertently pushes us to discriminate against unknown.

One look at a scarlet rose, and a 2 year old blurts out “red”. Did you know that children under a certain age perceive pure colours, whereas we don’t? We often perceive colours through the lens of a familiar language. For instance, if you speak a language that doesn’t have a distinct category for green and blue you may not be able to visually distinguish between these colours very well.

Remember “The dress”?

It’s true colour is blue and black. Ironically, Many see it as white and golden. Why do different people see different colours? For some of us, the brain confidently filters out blue wavelength. It senses that there is a shadow around the object.

When we look at colours of rainbow 🌈 we see stripes of various colours. However, the boundaries are not super clear. If you took it upon yourself to count how many colours are “actually” in a rainbow, the answer will boggle your mind. Despite considering limitations of the visible spectrum for human eyes, you could potentially find a million different colours in a rainbow.

To summarise, we take our ability to differentiate categories of colours as granted. We also assume that our colour vision is bulletproof. As various examples above prove, that is not the case.

Categorical thinking is flawed

Categorisation is an essential part of learning, memory, cognition, and reasoning. If you were in a jungle and you couldn’t tell a bear from a bush, well, good luck to you 😀. For this post however, let’s get into the drawbacks of categorical thinking.

1. Categorical thinking and Amplification error

Performance appraisals in organisations elicit emotional reactions. Many organisations enforce a bell curve or at least categories of performance. While Jack may be labelled as average, Sandeep might be labelled as an under-performer. Suppose, Jack is at the bottom of the average category whereas Sandeep is at the top of the under-performer category. The difference in actual performance between Sandeep and Jack is likely to be negligible.

Image Credit : Unsplash, Amy Hirschi

This is dangerous because we tend to suppress similarities between Jack and Sandeep and amplify differences. I fully appreciate that this is an area laced with a lot of complexity and the choices of categories are debatable. However, simply being aware of amplification error, we can avoid unfair outcomes by bending the curve rather than bending people into categories.

2. Discrimination against unknown categories

On January 28, 1986, Space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. Cause of the disaster was attributed to an O-ring. A circular gasket sealing the rocket booster. This had failed due to the low temperature. This was a risk that several engineers noted, but that NASA management dismissed

In God we trust, all others bring data.

David Epstein notes in his book Range, that NASA had this motto. NASA was so data driven that they did not take into account the hunches of people who had honed their instincts for years working on the complicated aerospace systems.

In summary, thinking in categories can make you blind to presence of unknown categories of information (Expert instincts in this case). Do not discriminate against unknown categories.

3. Categorical thinking & innovation

Thinking in categories prevents us from thinking outside the box. For instance, Kodak when faced with a new category i.e. digital camera an invention by one of its own electrical engineers, simply ignored it as an internal threat. Instead of investing in digital cameras, they ran campaigns to tell people how physical photography was better. They could not break out of what was back then a hugely successful category.

Image Credit: Unsplash (Museums Victoria)

As a counter example, Software as a service (SaaS) is hugely successful. This paradigm has dispensed the users from the arduous process of paying for and setting up infrastructure, restrictive licensing, and installing and maintaining software. Instead, they simply ask the users to pay a fixed periodic fee. If we pay close attention, there are a lot of new categories here. Infrastructure sharing, application sharing, indirect charging, paying only for what you use.

Innovation by definition is obliterating categories or creating new categories (of products in this case).

Flex your spectral thinking muscle

While categorical thinking tends to suppress similarities and amplify differences, spectral thinking appreciates that two things can be more of the same despite being in different categories. Spectral thinking is able to zoom out from finite categories to an infinite spectrum.

Suppose you are in a role titled “Business analyst”, you are likely to be boxed into things you are supposed to do. For instance, the role may not enable you to be a part of product decisions, or contribute to engineering decisions even if you have the experience and are qualified to do so. This is why I am not a big fan of role titles. I appreciate that they do serve a purpose but they also push us into pitfalls of categorical thinking.

The solution lies in our ability to break the category of our role title and create new ones. For instance, if you network with product managers, and take up a side gig breaking down complex features, and helping with research, perhaps you can break into that category and become a product manager yourself!

How have you dealt with categorical thinking?

By Abhi Shah

Hi, I’m Abhi. After living many years in London, me and my family re-located back to India in the summer of 2017. I spend most of my time working with a high performing team at Barclays in Pune, India and the rest with my son Anik! I have spent half of my career in commercial product roles and half in technology. I have also spent over 9 years living outside India, and have traveled to over 27 countries. Visit the Bio section of this website to learn more about me.

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