Don’t fall for this myth mis-categorization so quickly. (image via lairweb)
Sometimes people ask, “Can you teach me how to categorize things?” and I’m never quite sure how to approach that. How do you teach someone to do something that seems like second nature? I think everyone already has the basic, underlying skills required. At its core, categorization is about lumping similar things together into a group and splitting distinctly different things into separate groups. These are skills that nearly every child learns during early development.
You can see it as they learn to speak and make early mistakes. For example, when a young child first learns the word “bunny,” she quickly figures out that “bunny” represents multiple individual objects (unlike the word “mommy,” which she uses to refer to one unique person in her life). But for a brief time she will misapply the word bunny to anything white and fluffy. She is lumping in many things that aren’t bunnies, but through trial and error she will learn to split off the things that don’t qualify.
So do people lose the ability to do this? It’s a fundamental aspect of developmental psychology – I don’t think we’d be able to communicate effectively without this skill. My theory is that people just lack confidence that the categories they come up with will be effective and will make sense to others. My best piece of advice is this: You just need to find the right balance between lumping and splitting.
Too much lumping will result in categories that are vague and meaningless. Too much splitting will lead to fine distinctions that are confusing, and the number of categories will become unwieldy. There’s no “magic number,” but take a cue from the scale of the groups. Ideally each of the categories should contain a similar number of items. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same number, but you don’t want one category to have 5 items and another to have 500. If your organization scheme is out of balance like that, try splitting up the larger groups, and lumping some of the smaller, related groups together.