100 Things You Should Know About People: #62 — People Love To Categorize

"One of these things" picture from Sesame Street
"One of these things" picture from Sesame Street

If you are between the ages of 5 and 60 and grew up with a television in the US, you probably will know what I mean if I say, “One of these things is not like the other.” This was (is) a favorite snippet from the popular children’s show Sesame Street. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can view an example at the Sesame Street website. The Sesame Street lessons teach young children how to notice differences, and how to to categorize.

Categorizing develops around age 7 — Interestingly, it’s probably unnecessary, and perhaps even ineffective, to try and teach young children how to create categories for two reasons:

  1. People naturally create categories. Just like learning a native language happens naturally, so does learning to categorize the world around us.
  2. Categorizing doesn’t emerge as a skill until about age 7. Younger than 7, and certainly younger than 5, thinking about categories just doesn’t make sense to children. After the age of 7, however, people become fascinated with categorizing information.

If you don’t give people categories they will create their own — Just as the visual cortex will impose patterns on what we see, whether there are really patterns there or not (see the post on patterns), people will impose categories when they are confronted with large amounts of information. People use categorization as a way to make sense of what is around them, especially when they feel overwhelmed with information.

Self-organized vs. other-organized — While working on my master’s thesis at Pennsylvania State University, I conducted research on whether people would remember information better if it was organized by other people, or whether they would remember it better if they organized it themselves. What I found was that it didn’t really matter. What mattered most was how well it was organized. The more organized the information the better people remembered it. Some people (those who measured high on “locus of control” measures) preferred to organize the information in their own way, but self vs. other organization schemes did not really matter as long as the information was well organized.

What do you think? Are you one of the people who prefer to organize information into your own categories? Do you appreciate it when a website is well-organized? If you are a website designer, do you spend enough time figuring out how to best organize the information? Do you use techniques like card sorting to work through different organization strategies with your target audience?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #63 -- Group Decision-Making Is Faulty
100 Things You Should Know About People: #61 -- People Learn Best By Example

7 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #62 — People Love To Categorize”

  1. Dear Susan,

    I am reading Your blog for some time now and I am just enjoying it! I am engineer and writing my own blogs. Beside of that, I always was interested in psychology and human behavior.

    You just combined several of my interests in one!

    Thank you, great work and good luck!

    Marko.

  2. Susan, I think you should write a book about anti-patterns, which upset people called….What Makes Them Sick. I am being serious. It is basically 100 Things to Avoid as a Web Designer. I would love to see that book. Eagerly awaiting the publication of your 100 Things book.

    This is great stuff.

    Thanks,
    Brian

    PS Still want you for Big Deign 2011. I have not heard back. July 15-16 are the dates.

  3. Hey Susan, I read your posts for a while, but now I dare to write you a comment. I wanna let you know that I enjoy your article about “100 things you should know about people” and I admit that I discovered many things. Keep going with this great work and good luck. :D

  4. Hi Susan,
    could you provide some references for the article? Its really interesting and I would like to read the sources and get further information.

  5. For me categories are a must for websites that host a lot of content. Besides word categories, I am a big fan of intuitive UI, working with lots of colors, and icons.
    Me and my team are currently working with web developers to build a website and I naturally categorized all its content, without even consciously deciding to do so. I think everyone categorizes, sometimes it’s just more obvious to others, in which case we speak of well organized categories :)

  6. I wonder how this relates to the categorization of information via Wikipedia and the Britannica Encyclopedia. I wonder if Wikipedia (outsourcing information categorization) is more effective when done by the masses vs “experts” within a given field and if this has contributed to the popularization of Wikipedia, not just its ease of access…

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