Drawing inferences from existing knowledge, our brain makes automatic, and often subconscious, assumptions about an individual based on visual cues. We then place the individual in a social category (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity).
Social Categorization Overview
Social categorization comprises a large part of Tajfel & Turner’s (2004) social identity theory formulated in the late 1970s.
They attribute the phenomenon of social categorization to the existence of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’.
They define the term “group” in the following statement:
“We can conceptualize a group, in this sense, as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership in it” (Tajfel & Turner, 2004, 282).
Liberman et al. (2017) elaborate:
“when applied to the social domain, forming conceptually rich categories has obvious functional value – social categories organize people’s vast knowledge about human attributes and about the complex relationship networks that comprise human social life”(para 1).
However, functional value aside, social categorization can be, by nature, discriminatory. It is the basis for prejudice, bias based on assumption, and from this, has been more associated with its negative connotations.
Liberman et al. (2017) explain that:
“…many of these social preferences for members of one’s own social group, and rich conceptual inferences based on social group membership are each in place by the time children enter formal schooling. For example, children have both explicit and implicit preferences based on people’s gender, race, and linguistic group” (para 7).
10 Examples of Social Categorization
- Race Categorization: People are categorized by their race at first glance; this is typically determined by someone’s physical features like skin color, hair texture, distinct facial features, height, body type, etc.
- Gender Categorization: When you see a person, often without thinking about it, you immediately classify them as a male or a female based on their physical presence.
- Religious Categorization: You classify someone as being of a certain religion by their appearance. A clear example could be if you see someone wearing a hijab or a person wearing a yarmulka on their head and assume they are a religion associated with these customs.
- Social Class Categorization: Assuming someone is upper middle class or extremely wealthy because they are driving an expensive car, or perhaps, wearing a luxury item, like diamonds or a Rolex watch.
- Sexuality Stereotypes: You see a man or woman dressed or presenting themselves in a way that fits certain stereotypes, so you make assumptions about their sexual orientation.
- Ageism: You see a man walking down the street, and because he has grey hair in his beard, you assume he is over 50 years old.
- Political Categorization: After talking with someone you just met about the economy, you assume that they have a certain political affiliation because of what they said.
- Regional Categorization: You are from the Northeast United States, specifically New York City, you see someone with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and you assume that they are from a different part of America.
- Job-Based Prejudice: At the local gas station, you see an older employee pumping gas. You assume that they must not have a college degree or a high level of secondary or tertiary education.
- Ethnic Prejudice: Often, categorizing people based on ethnicity can lead to discriminatory government policies and, such as in the case of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, attempted genocide.
Social Psychology Research into Social Categorization
1. Race-Based Stereotyping (Clark & Clark, 1950)
People are categorized by their race at first glance; this is typically determined by someone’s physical features like skin color, hair texture, distinct facial features, height, body type, etc.
The process by which people are grouped according to their physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, height, and body type, is often subconscious at first glance.
Social categorization, especially when race and ethnicity are in consideration, unfortunately, has been used to justify discrimination and inequality throughout history.
One of the more influential research studies on social categorization was referred to as the Harvard doll experiment, conducted in the late 1940s. The landmark study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was later in the seminal school segregation lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education, which proclaimed that the segregation of public schools was an unconstitutional act. In the doll tests:
“The subjects were presented with four dolls, identical in every way save skin color. For half of the subjects the dolls were presented in the order: white, colored, white, colored. For the other half of the order of presentation was reversed”(Clark & Clark, 1950, p. 169).
Questions were asked of the children who acted as subjects in the experiment. Clark & Clark (1950) found that the majority of the children chose the white doll and associated it with positive characteristics such as “nice” and “pretty,” while the black doll was associated with negative characteristics such as “bad” and “ugly”(p. 177-178).
It was concluded that people tend to have more positive attitudes toward those who are similar to them in terms of physical characteristics and that they are more apt to have negative attitudes toward those who are different.
2. Social Media and the Halo Effect (Gabrieli et al., 2021)
While scrolling through Instagram, or other social media, you see a picture of a couple smiling with their family, you assume that they are incredibly happy, trustworthy, or good people.
When scrolling through social media sites, you are very likely to see uploaded pictures of happy couples, families, and people looking like they are living an amazing and happy life.
You see an aesthetically attractive person on social media, and from the picture, you might categorize the person in an inherently “good” or “bad” category.
In a recent study on addressing a concept called “the halo effect“, Gabrieli et al. (2021) “focus on how appearance may affect the perception of trustworthiness” (para 2). The “halo effect” states that people can form positive opinions of others based on a single positive trait (e.g., a couple smiling in the picture, a kind-faced elderly man, etc.).
The researchers found that:
“…not only children’s faces, but also adults’ faces with facial traits that resemble the stereotypical traits of children, such as big round eyes, have been shown to influence adult viewers’ estimations such that baby-faced adults are perceived as more trustworthy, warm, and innocent”(para 3).
They analyzed race categories (Asian and Caucasian faces), gender categories (male and female) , and cross-referenced the data with age to conclude that the “strength of the correlation between the perceived aesthetic and trustworthiness of strangers’ faces is affected by the age of presented faces, but not by their ethnicity or gender”(para 15).
3. Social Class Prejudice (Shutts et al., 2016)
We may assume someone is upper middle class or extremely wealthy because they are driving an expensive car, or, perhaps, wearing a luxury item, like diamonds or a Rolex watch.
Socioeconomic status is associated with owning certain luxury items, and this may make us categorize them as wealthy at a glance, but this is actually only our perceived assumption.
However, that this type of social categorization can be inaccurate, as a person’s true wealth is not always indicative of their outward appearance.
For example, you may have seen billionaires in public or in photographs in the news and become surprised that they are dressed in simple, unexpensive clothes.
Or conversely, you may have seen a person that you know isn’t wealthy buying expensive items to appear that they have more wealth. The saying “do not judge a book by its cover” has credibility.
In a study conducted by Shutts et al. (2016), researchers examine present-day youth and if they make inferences about social class disparities by looking at items that are expensive versus items that are not.
They used a “wealth exercise,” showing different possessions to children such as rucksacks, shoes, sporting gear, and denim, pictures of cars, backyard play-sets, electronics, and holiday locations.
She found that:
“participants indicated they would prefer to befriend children who were depicted with high-wealth possessions […] Children also indicated that someone with high-wealth possessions would be more likely than someone with low-wealth possessions to have other high-wealth possessions and family belongings, to complete a school assignment correctly, and to engage in activities with more social partners” (para 41).
Even amongst children, social categorization cause bias in an individual’s worldview.
Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1950). Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. The Journal of Negro Education, 19(3), 169-178. https://doi.org/10.2307/2966491
Gabrieli, G., Lee, A., Setoh, P., & Esposito, G. (2021). An Analysis of the Generalizability and Stability of the Halo Effect During the COVID-19 Pandemic Outbreak. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.631871
Liberman, Z., Woodward, A. L., & Kinzler, K. D. (2017). The Origins of Social Categorization. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(7), 556–568. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2017.04.004
Shutts, K., Brey, E. L., Dornbusch, L. A., Slywotzky, N., & Olson, K. R. (2016). Children Use Wealth Cues to Evaluate Others. PLOS ONE, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149360
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior. Political Psychology, 276–293. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203505984-16