Putting ideas in boxes


Humans have a need for sense-making. In order to better understand the world we live in, we have developed processes and strategies to help define our environment and our experiences. Our use of language requires us to create labels and define concepts by the words that represent these things. The act of defining requires us to determine what something is and what it is not. To make this process easier and more efficient, we categorise things and ideas. In essence, we put these concepts in boxes that help us organise the meaning we have created for our experiences. Unfortunately, this also comes with drawbacks. How do we distinguish between concepts within the box? Moreover, what now is the relationship between what is outside the box and what is within it?

The associations we make and the meaning we give to what is in one box vs another can significantly impact our worldview. This is especially true when we look at what is good and bad or right and wrong. In this context, we also use to put people in such boxes, judging who belongs and who does not. When we think in categories, we may overlook how different two facts are that we have put in the same box. Conversely, we may overestimate how different two ideas are when one falls outside the category we have placed another. These artificial boundaries enhance our biases causing us to overlook the big picture or the relationships that connect ideas. 

A great example of this is the way we define colours.  Colours are a spectrum of light, and we then create boundaries between what is orange or red, yellow or green, blue or purple. There are no clear borders between these colours unless we look at two separate points on different parts of the spectrum. Now consider the way we look at people. We may label people by their age, ethnicity or gender. These are broad and imprecise terms. How can we know about a person’s character or abilities based on this? Yet, we still make judgements based on many very broad definitions. Which cultural stereotypes might I associate with people from a particular country? Which boxes might I put someone in as a result of their cultural heritage?

Our minds find ways to define an “us” and an “other”. Historically we have seen this distinction made about people from different countries, cities or clans and families. The way we judge “others” based on physical traits such as race and gender, geographic location, or association are only some of the ways that we sometimes limit our perspective and put people or ideas inboxes. When we relate this to everyday life, we can ask ourselves which artificial boundaries we have created for ourselves. Are our preferences or dislikes based on experience or because of assumptions we have made and boundaries we have drawn? What is the right way to live? What makes people good or bad? What is possible for you and what is not? When are you too old to learn or try new things? What kind of person are you? What boxes do you put yourself into?

If we can begin to see ideas as one perspective from which to see the world rather than being so strongly identified with a single way of thinking, we can start to break through the limitations of the boundaries we have created. This becomes a struggle for many because challenging our worldview can be uncomfortable or unsettling. Shuffling things around can disturb the meanings we have given the world, leaving us uncertain and vulnerable. It is, however, the only way to see the errors in our judgement and the opportunities for positive change. When we notice what we don’t like, it can help us define what do want, and when we observe behaviour that offends us, we can recognise what we want to change about ourselves. The key is to learn how to zoom in, classify, identify and discern while also being able to zoom out and see the big picture letting go of assumptions and judgements. The more we develop our ability to view the world from outside of the boxes of meaning we have created for ourselves, the better our ability to solve problems and the richer will be our experiences of life.