What kind of person (or monster) is this?

By David Jon Phillips     
June 13, 2014

From: Magazine

Illustration by Mike La Riccia

Say you're in a train station when a woman in a white coat walks by. Not knowing what the woman does for a living, you're asked to decide whether she is a pharmacist (who knows about medications) or a physician (who knows about medications, plus has the ability to write prescriptions). Research by Chicago Booth Assistant Professor Abigail Sussman demonstrates that you are more likely to say the woman is a pharmacist. 

Sussman, in collaboration with the US Naval Research Lab's Sangeet S. Khemlani and UCLA's Daniel M. Oppenheimer, investigated how people classify others given incomplete information. Results from two experiments suggest that in uncertain situations, people prefer to group others in categories that specify fewer distinct features (narrower latent scope) over those with more defining features (with broader latent scope), a bias known as narrow latent scope.

The researchers hypothesized that people with limited information jump to narrow-latent-scope categorizations. To test the hypothesis, the researchers presented participants with descriptions of two otherwise unfamiliar categories, then described individuals and asked participants to assign them to one of the categories. The experiments relied on fictional groups rather than existing social categories to ensure that a participant's prior knowledge would not influence his or her responses. "This way, we knew that the information that we learned from responses was based on the differences we were creating in the experimental setting," says Sussman. 

For example, the researchers presented the statement, "In the jungles of the Amazon about half of the Tokolo tribe members are hunters and the other half are spear fisherman; both hunters and spear fishermen carry spears, but spear fishermen also carry nets." Then they told the participants, "A tribesman has a spear, but you don't know whether or not he also has a net." Study subjects were more likely to classify this tribesman as a hunter. 

In a second experiment, involving monsters rather than tribesmen, the researchers showed participants images of fictitious beasts before asking them to complete a visual categorization task. The images detailed several kinds of monsters including Bogwomblers, which all had twisted arms, and Queezlekins, which had twisted arms and twisted legs. Researchers then showed participants pictures of monsters with some characteristics partially occluded by a brick wall. When participants couldn't see a monster's legs, and therefore couldn't categorize the monster with certainty, they were more likely to classify the monster as a Bogwombler. 

The researchers conclude that when observers lack complete information, they are more likely to fit a person (or monster) into a category with fewer defining features. Sussman, Khemlani, and Oppenheimer surmise that people with incomplete information may consider the unidentified person in question to fit better in the narrow-scope category, and they may potentially use this as the basis for classification. 

This pattern persists even when, given available information, there's an equal chance the person or thing being categorized could fit into narrow- or broad-latent-scope categories. 

Understanding how people categorize others given limited information can help explain how people apply stereotypes, write the researchers. Importantly for marketers, says Sussman, "this knowledge can also be extended to inferences that consumers make about products and brands." 

Work cited

Abigail Sussman, Sangeet S. Khemlani, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, "Latent Scope Bias in Categorization," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2014.