10.2 Using Concepts to Classify the World
You know the song that says, ‘Bird is the word?’ Well, a bird is much more than just a word. It’s even more than just an animal. A bird is a concept, or a way to classify something in your mind.
How do I know it’s a concept? Think about it: when I say ‘bird,’ you probably get a specific image in your mind. The same is true if I say ‘car’ or ‘fruit,’ which are also concepts. Essentially, if something is a bird (or car or a fruit), it has certain features that most or all birds (or cars or fruits) share. So, it’s kind of like a shortcut in your mind: if I say that there’s a bird on my windowsill, you can picture what that bird looks like and probably guess what it’s doing.
There are several reasons to use concepts. The first, which you’ve already seen, is to communicate with others. It’s a kind of a shorthand. Instead of saying to you, ‘There’s something outside my window. It has feathers and wings and it’s singing,’ I can just say, ‘There’s a bird outside my window.’ You can probably guess that it has feathers and wings and sings.
Another reason that concepts are helpful is that they help preserve space in your memory. Instead of having to remember every single bird you’ve ever seen or heard, for example, you can file them away under the general category of birds. That takes a lot less effort than trying to remember every single one!
Finally, concepts help you make predictions and generalizations about the world. If I tell you there’s a bird on my windowsill, you can probably predict that it will sing and/or that it has a nest somewhere. Your concept of what a bird is and does helps you.
Let’s look at how we use concepts, in particular the idea of a prototype and typicality.
Let’s say that I decide to tell you a story. ‘Once upon a time, there was a bird,’ I start. Wait! What kind of bird? What’s the bird like? Am I telling a story about a sparrow or a penguin?
A prototype is a representative of a concept. It is an example of something with the general qualities that make up a concept. I’ll bet when I said ‘Once upon a time, there was a bird,’ you imagined something that was much more like a sparrow than a penguin, didn’t you? That’s because a sparrow is generally considered to be a prototype of a bird: it has wings, it flies, it builds a nest, and it lays eggs.
This is true of other concepts, too. When I mention that I ate some fruit a few minutes ago, what do you picture? Am I eating an apple or an olive or a tomato? Of those three, apples are more of a prototype of a piece of fruit, even though technically they are all fruit.
You might be wondering if a sparrow or an apple is a prototype, what about the penguins and olives and tomatoes? Typicality is the idea that members of a group differ in how similar they are to a prototype.
For example, a blue jay is more like a sparrow than an owl or an eagle or a penguin. Therefore, a blue jay is more typical of a bird than the others. But an owl is closer to a sparrow than a penguin is, so it is more typical than a penguin. Likewise, a peach is a more typical fruit than olives because it’s closer to the prototype of an apple.
The more typical a specimen is the easier and faster it is to identify it as a member of the concept. If you see a peach, you can very quickly identify that it’s a fruit but looking at an olive or avocado might take you a second longer to classify as a fruit.
Not only that, the higher typicality that a specimen has, the more accurately you can generalize and make predictions about it. For example, if you’ve never seen a blue jay and don’t know anything about it, but I tell you that it’s a bird, you can probably guess that it flies, eats insects, and nests in trees.
But if you aren’t familiar with penguins, you might not realize that, even though they are birds, they don’t do any of those things. Because a penguin has a low typicality, it is harder to generalize and make predictions about it.
A concept is a way to classify something in your mind. Concepts allow people to communicate with each other, save space in their minds, and generalize and predict about things in the world around them. A prototype is a specimen that is representative of a concept. The closer something is to the prototype, the more typicality it displays, and therefore the easier it is to identify and generalize.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define what a prototype is
- Describe what concepts are
- Explain how typicality influences how people think about the world