Prototypes in Psychology: Definition and Examples

prototypes in psychology, explained below

A prototype refers to a mental representation of a concept that is the most typical example of that concept.

People rely on prototypes to make the categorization of newly introduced concepts easier.

If an individual needed to form a new category for every concept encountered, then storage in memory word be chaotic and overwhelming. The use of prototypes provides structure to memory, which in turn improves retrieval and comprehension.

Definition of Prototypes in Psychology

In psychology, prototypes refer to a mental representation of the most typical and characteristic example of a category. They serve as a standard or benchmark against which other members of the same category are compared.

The cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch is regarded as the founder of Prototype Theory which explains how people categorize new information (Rosch & Mervis, 1975; Rosch, 1978).

The prototype of a particular category is an example that is most often associated with that concept. It exists in the center of the category with other members that contain similar attributes.

Members in the same category are arranged as increasingly different from the prototype.

Eventually, the attributes of a member are so different from the prototype that it must be placed in a different category.

Not to be confused with: Jungian Archetypes

The Structure of Prototypes

Hampton (2006) explains how the structure of a prototype for a particular concept category is determined.

This determination is based on meeting one or more of four phenomena:

  • Vagueness: Categorization of an object may be uncertain due to a lack of clearly defined criteria that could be applied to every possible example.
  • Typicality: Members of a category differ in terms of how well they fit as examples. Thus, the structure contains examples of varying degrees of representativeness.
  • Genericity: When an individual is asked to define the meaning of the concept, they generate a description that is true of some, but not all members of the category.
  • Opacity: Most people are unable to generate a hard-and-fast rule for determining what qualifies as membership in the category.

These four phenomena are key to determining if a concept category has a prototype. They have been widely accepted in several domains of psychology such as speech perception, person perception, and psychiatric diagnosis (Hampton, 2006). 

Determining the Prototype Structure

According to Prototype Theory (Rosch & Mervis, 1975; Hampton, 2006), the determination of whether a concept is included in a specific category is accomplished through an analysis of the four phenomena stated above (albeit not sequentially).

The degree of match between the concept in the category and the prototype representing that category is identified. If the match exceeds a certain criterion threshold, then the concept is included in the category.

The greater the degree of match, or the further above the criterion threshold, the more likely the concept will be given the status of typical.

If it is close, but not sufficiently matched, then it can be classified as a borderline, or considered to be a case of vagueness.

A partial match means genericity and opacity will occur. This means that the attributes of the prototype may not be matched by all category members. A straightforward formula for this determination does not exist.

A good example of this scenario is the penguin. Although it is a bird, it does not match exceptionally well with the prototype example of the bird category. In appearance, it does not have feathers and it does not fly. These are the two main attributes of the prototype, both of which do not apply to the penguin.

It is important to remember that prototypes are usually discussed in the context of non-academic circles and thus do not map well onto discussions involving scientific taxonomies.

Prototypes Examples

  • Robin vs Penguin: The prototype for “bird” consists of attributes such as: has wings, feathers, a beak, and flies. In this case, a robin is a close match to the prototype. However, the penguin is a bird too. Penguins don’t look like they have feathers (they do) and they don’t fly. So, penguins fall into the bird category, but don’t match the prototype very well.
  • The Office Worker: The typical office worker is prompt, works 9-5, and follows directions. This is the type of employee that every manager dreams of having. These days however, as remote work becomes more prevalent, the prototypical office worker may have to be redefined.
  • In the Definition of Leadership: At one time, the prototype for a good leader was someone that is tough, demanding, speaks with a stern tone, and is unconcerned with people’s feelings. Today however, the definition of a good leader is evolving to include a different set of attributes, such as having emotional intelligence, patience, and a caring attitude.
  • Evolving Gender Roles: There was a time in the U. S. when the prototype for men and women were narrowly defined. Men were tough and hardworking, while women were submissive and caring. As times change, so have the prototypes for gender roles.  
  • An Accountant: If you asked people to describe an accountant, most people would include attributes such as: intelligent, wears glasses, is maybe a little boring, and nerdy.
  • In Teaching Practices: If asked to give an example of a “typical” teaching style, a lot of people might describe it as the teacher talking a lot while the students sit quietly while being bored. Of course, as teaching pedagogy evolves the prototype will change to include terms such as: active, interesting, dynamic, and effective.  
  • The NBA Player: The prototypical professional basketball player is tall, slightly muscular, and very fast. These are the attributes that make up the prototype for “NBA Player.” However, occasionally, a player will come along that defies this best example. That individual might be so tall and thin that it just doesn’t seem possible that they could play at the professional level.
  • Prototype for Pet: If you say the word “pet” to someone in North America, most likely an image of a cat or dog will be first to pop up in their mind. This is because a lot of people have a cat or dog as a pet. It is unlikely that an image of a fish or a lizard will appear because these animals don’t fit the prototype for pet.
  • Acceptance of Hierarchical Structure: In some countries, work environments are highly structured. There is a clearly defined organizational hierarchy. Workers that are native to this cultural dynamic have no qualms receiving instructions with very little questioning or feeling free to offer suggestions. In fact, offering a suggestion might be seen as questioning management’s authority and a sign of disrespect.
  • In the Courtroom: You might notice that a lot of times the defense attorney will have their client wear clothes to make them look a certain way. For example, in a case involving a violent crime, the defendant will wear a suit, glasses, and get their hair cut. The idea is to make them appear differently than the prototypical violent criminal.   

Psychological Applications of Prototypes

1. In Diagnosis of Mental Disorders

Classifying a set of psychological and behavioral characteristics as constituting a mental disorder is not a clear-cut exercise. The boundaries between what is a clear disorder and just unusual behavior can sometimes be very fuzzy.

This is why the procedure for making this determination involves a comparison of a person’s characteristics with a prototypical example of a specific psychiatric disorder.

An individual may display some symptoms that are consistent with the prototype, but not all. This is why the term “borderline” exists in the diagnostic spectrum, to indicate that some cases involve symptoms that are consistent with the prototypical example, but not all.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1994 began adopting prototype definitions. An individual may be diagnosed with a certain disorder based on displaying a certain number of symptoms, but certainly not all, that are present in the prototypical case.

2. Cultural Variation of Leadership Prototypes

As trade barriers are reduced and globalization spreads, corporations are faced with handling cross-cultural conceptions of a wide range of work-related issues. From differences in work roles, habits, and communication styles, companies must learn to adapt to maintain a competitive edge.

The problem for multinational corporations is that people from different cultural backgrounds will subscribe to sometimes vastly different leadership prototypes (Brodbeck et al., 2000; Smith & Peterson, 2017).

According to leadership categorization theory (Lord & Maher, 1992, 2003), leadership prototypes operate as implicit theories which function outside of conscious awareness.

Those prototypes consist of information regarding leadership traits and behaviors, and are used to distinguish who is and is not considered to be a leader.

In addition to differences in leadership prototypes, the cross-cultural difficulties extend to other management related prototypical practices.

Ahmad (2009) points out that management theory and techniques in Muslim countries are different from Western concepts. Unfortunately, few students in Western MBA programs take elective courses in Islamic management.

Furthermore, countries can be described as possessing either low- or high-context cultures. This produces differences in how time and space are expressed in the language, friendship patterns are formed and agreements forged (Hall, 1960, 1967; Usunier, 1993).

Because Arabs belong to a high-context culture, while Germans and Americans exist in low-context cultures, there can be many opportunities for misunderstandings. 


Prototypes serve a valuable function in the cognitive processes of human beings. Having a concept example that is the best representation of a concept category enhances comprehension and helps provide structure to memory.

Without prototypes, a new concept category would have to be created for each and every object encountered.

Some of the most commonly relied upon prototypes include attributes assigned to professionals in various occupations and to animals in the world around us.

Although prototypes play a valuable role in understanding and thinking about the world in which we live, they do have limitations. For instance, the prototype for leaders can be quite different depending on the culture.

Utilizing a Western prototype for leadership style and practices while working in a non-Western country can result in misunderstandings and counterproductive.


Ahmad, K. (2009). Leadership and work motivation from the cross-cultural perspective. International Journal of Commerce and Management, 19(1), 72-84. doi:

Brodbeck, F. C., Frese, M., Akerblom, S., Audia, G., Bakacsi, G., Bendova, H., … & Wunderer, R. (2000). Cultural variation of leadership prototypes across 22 European countries. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 73(1), 1-29. doi:

Hall, E.T. (1960). The silent language in overseas business. Harvard Business Review, 38(3), 87-96.

Hall, E.T. (1976), Beyond Culture, Doubleday, New York, NY.

Hampton, J. A. (2006). Concepts as prototypes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 46, 79-113.

Hampton, J. A. (2006). Concepts as prototypes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 46, 79-113.

Lord, R. G., & Hall, R. J. (1992). Contemporary views of leadership and individual differences. The Leadership Quarterly, 3(2), 137-157. doi:

Lord, R., & Hall, R. (2003). Identity, leadership categorization, and leadership schema. Leadership and power: Identity processes in groups and organizations, 48, 64.

Rosch, E.R. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. R. Rosch & B. B. Lloyd (Eds.), Cognition and Categorization (pp. 27-48). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.

Rosch, E.R. & Mervis, C. B. (1975). Family resemblance: Studies in the internal structure of categories. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 573-605. doi:

Rosch, E. R., Simpson, C., & Miller, R. S. (1976). Structural bases of typicality effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2, 491-502.

Smith, P. B., & Peterson, M. F. (2017). Cross‐cultural leadership. The Blackwell Handbook of CrossCultural Management, 217-235.

Usunier, J.C. (1993). International marketing: A cultural approach. Prentice-Hall, Hemel Hempstead.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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