Color spectrum (Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel)

We think of colors as absolutes: Red is red and yellow is yellow. But colors exist on a spectrum, and the lines between them are not quite so distinct. This tendency to oversimplify distinctions shows up in politics as well: While we tend to slot people into one political party or another based on their political views, that label often fails to capture the nuances of individual experience that shape voter behavior.

How did we come to parse the world around us into such neat categories, and what are the costs and benefits of these labels? How do categories change and evolve over time? Over three days in March, a diverse group of researchers, including a sociologist, physicist, biologist, and mathematician, will gather to explore these questions. The working group will use an unusual mix of computer modeling and human experiments to get at the answers. For example, the researchers will employ machine learning to determine how a computer processes information that’s on a spectrum, and compare that with how humans do the same thing.

“We are trying to understand why we tend to create categories for things in our everyday life (colors, gender, political group) even if in reality these things are on a continuous spectrum,” says Tamara van der Does, a Postdoctoral Fellow at SFI. “Specifically, we want to look at what are the benefits of categorizations (and of more or less categorizations) and when do categorizations emerge.”

“The categorization makes it easier for people to think about things. We only have so much mental capacity,” explains Omidyar Fellow Vicky Chuqiao Yang, the working group’s organizer. She adds that the group’s work “is about understanding where it comes from and under- standing how that may change. I think that may help us as the world grows more diverse.”

Gaining a better grasp of how people categorize phenomena is especially useful in today’s deeply partisan political climate, she says. “I personally think the ‘us versus them’ mentality has been growing in recent years.”

The working group, which grew out of an informal “research jam” at the Sept. 2018 James S. McDonnell Foundation-SFI Postdocs in Complexity Conference IV (at SFI) , will be held March 18-20.

Read more about the working group "The evolution, benefits, and costs underlying categorization."