Good guy or bad guy; with me or against me; friend or foe; right or wrong; love versus hate; yin and yang.
Our minds seem to like simple categorical ways to divide up information in the world. This is kind of interesting given how terribly complex and nuanced most things are — especially in our social lives.
So why do we so strongly tend toward categorical simplicity in understanding the world? And what are the costs and benefits of such reasoning in our day-to-day lives?
The Figure/Ground Illusion and Simplicity-Seeking
The figure/ground illusion (see Hasson et al., 2001) exists when we look at an image that can be interpreted in multiple ways. For instance, the image included here can be seen as a vase. But after a few seconds of seeing it that way, we tend to see it as two faces looking at one another. However, and this point is critical, we cannot see both the vase and the faces at the same time. To allow us to perceive the world in coherent units, our perceptual systems have evolved to force us to see a cluster of stimuli as only one coherent form at any given moment.
Simplicity-Seeking in Social Psychology
One of the interesting things about human social psychology is that, in many regards, we tend to over-simplify stimuli in our social worlds — seeing things that could be conceptualized as complex and nuanced as simple and categorical. For instance, in many ways, we divide people into the category of “on my team” or “not” per the powerful ingroup/outgroup phenomenon (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Quickly and automatically, people divide folks into these categories — and research has shown that we treat people very differently if they are in our (psychologically constructed) group or not.
We see others as friends or as foes. We see people as good or bad. We see people as on our side, or against us. In an important sense, then, the simplicity-seeking processes in our basic visual systems parallel simplicity-seeking processes in our social perceptions.
And this tendency to see others in our social world in neat little categories, such as “good” or “bad,” likely helped our ancestors make efficient social decisions that helped them consort with others who were likely to help and support them and their families.
Implications of Being Simplicity-Seeking Creatures
Of course, being overly simplistic in our social perceptions can be the basis of major problems in our worlds. As a college professor in the behavioral sciences, I am always trying to get students to understand nuances and complexities that underlie all behavior. Further, as an evolutionary psychologist, I am always teaching about human universals — or the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re all humans and all have come about the by same processes — and are all working toward similar goals that stem simply from being part of the living world.
Simplicity-Seeking and the Perception of Narcissists
And sometimes our science encourages simplicity seeking. As one example, consider the current research on the topic of narcissists (see, for example, Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Researchers into relatively “dark” aspects of human personality have found that a core dark trait is narcissism — a tendency to focus overly on oneself at a cost to caring about others. People who are high on narcissism tend to behave in ways that truly benefit themselves a lot and such individuals tend to have little problem disregarding the interests of others.
This said, one nuance that often gets lost in the mix when it comes to narcissism is this: Narcissism is a continuous trait; people vary from one another by matters of degree. As is true with all continuous personality traits, people do not vary from one another categorically on this dimension. Thus, technically (and importantly), it’s not like there are “the narcissists” and “everyone else.” Rather, everyone has some proclivities toward narcissism — and some do more so, on average, than do others.
Now that’s a much more nuanced approach to thinking about what narcissism is, isn’t it? It’s also less simple. It’s less black-and-white. And, as someone who has taught courses in personality psychology since 1995, I can tell you also that it’s a difficult way for students (or anyone) to think about narcissism. It is so much easier and more natural for us to think about “narcissists” versus “everyone else” — and this fact is strongly rooted in our basic perceptual processes that promote black-and-white thinking in all areas of our lives.
Of course, this same problem of seeing other people in overly simplified ways is related to how things like ethnic or religious background affect how we see others. And yeah, lots of problems in this world stem from this fact.
The social world is complex. In reality, people don’t really easily fall into categories like “good” and “evil,” "smart" or "dumb," and "helpful" or "lazy." In spite of the fact that human universals underlie so much of who we are, people have a very strong tendency to see others in highly simplistic, categorical ways. It’s way easier to see someone as “a narcissist” than to see that person as “slightly above the mean on the narcissist dimension at times.” It’s way easier to see someone as “a hypocrite” than to see someone as “less likely to hold and express consonant thoughts on average compared with others.”
We see a simple set of visual stimuli as either a vase or a pair of faces. And we often treat people in our social worlds with this same kind of categorical simplicity — often to the detriment of our getting to really know others in our world.
Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.
Hasson, U., Hendler, T., Ben Bashat, D., and Malach, R. (2001). Vase or face? A neural correlate of shape-selective grouping processes in the human brain. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 13, 744–753.
Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K.M. (2002). The Dark Triad of Personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556-563.