From the moment of our very first breath, we become part of a category: Male, Female, infant, daughter, son, etc. This seemingly simple concept of classifying our surroundings into manageable groups with shared characteristics affects us to a much greater extent than we are aware of on a daily basis. The use of categories in defining our surroundings is essential to our understanding of those surroundings and is inseparable from our experience. For example, one cannot describe or recognize objects without the use of their categorical knowledge. When we walk into a room, we know which item in the room can function as a seat, regardless of whether or not we have seen that specific seat before, because we utilize our knowledge of the category of seats to determine where we can sit. In a series conducted by NPR called Invisibilia, hosts explore new psychological research and strange phenomena. In this specific episode, episode 5 “The Power of Categories”, hosts of the series discuss categories and not only the human need for them, but the desire to be a part of them.
The episode begins by telling a story of a coffee shop in which customers are asked the simple question “cat or dog?” Though the question is short and seemingly insignificant, it has had interesting effects on the clientele. Patrons within the shop gladly declare themselves as one category or the other and then attribute an entire world of qualities to each category. They say things like “dog people are chatty” and “cat people like to stay at home.” The significance of being a “cat person” or “dog person” exists because people have contributed characteristics to these categories that help them understand the world and make judgement based on their understanding. This demonstrates that categories are necessary but even further; it shows that categories are desired. The patrons who assign themselves to a category, do so gladly, and the shop reports that there is an increase in the number of tips it receives because of it.
The next part of the series further stresses the importance of categories by presenting a woman named Paige who states has felt throughout her life that she as “flipped” , sometimes multiple times a day, between perceiving the world as a man and perceiving the world as a woman. An interview with Paige within the series reveals her struggle. She states throughout her life, the issue was not that she was a man or that she was women depending on the time but that she was “in between categories.” In the end of this segment, a follow up interview with Paige a year later reveals that she has become happier simply because she has found a category to belong to, regardless of whether it is a category commonly accepted by society.
The next segment explores the desire of Iggy Ignatious to return to India. Because of family, he is unable to return to India, so he decides to build a retirement community in Florida called “Shantiniketan.” This community is complete with all the characteristics of the category Iggy attributes to his home and is extremely popular among Indian immigrants. Iggy stresses that no one is excluded from the community; however all of his residents are Indian immigrants. The popularity a community of this time is attributed to an individual’s desires to live in a community “just like them.” Iggy states it is hard to live as an outsider and after reaching an old age, his and many of his other residents wish to experience the relief of being surrounded by a community to which they belong. Iggy’s idea that this set up is ideal at the end of a person’s life is supported by research done by Jeff Greenberg at the University of Arizona. Greenberg studies human behavior “when death is on the mind.” He states in that state, people like people in their own group, that is “Italians like Italians, Christians like Christians.” He speculates that this happens because death haunts us and in an effort to fend it off we dive into a category we belong to in order to obtain the illusion that we are enduringly significant. Though many people reading may not have considered these ideas, I feel that no one can argue that there is comfort in “being among your own.” There is comfort in being a part of a group or category, in which you know the rules and characteristics and feel innately a part of.
The final segment presents the listeners with a story. The story uses the term “vast majority” to describe a category of people. Those who read the story and experience an uplifted mood are said to experience it because they believe themselves to be a part of this “vast majority” and therefore, are comforted in being a part of a category, in belonging. Those who listen to the story and are without a reaction are said to not belong to the vast majority so they do not experience an uplifting mood. The series presents several people who read the story and had either positive or indifferent reactions.
Throughout the series the concepts of categories and their importance in our lives are accurately portrayed. However, the series extends the importance of categories to a sense of belonging and a sense of home, instead of just discussing them in the sense of our interpretation of the world. Though I had not thought of categories in that way before, from my experience thus far these inferences make sense. The need to belong to a category or a group is evident in everyday life. It is clearly demonstrated in the way people describe themselves, in the clothes they wear, and in the way they speak. More research in this area would be useful in determining whether people at the end of their lives are more comforted by the sense of belonging than they are by being surrounded by other people “in their category.” Furthermore, investigation as to whether this sense of belonging can be obtain even when surrounded by people “of other categories” is necessary.