February 27, 2008

Human tendencies to think in hierarchies

This is the follow-up to my earlier entry on Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives and our very human tendency to think in hierarchies, even where inappropriate or misleading. (The great chain of being or evolutionary ladder metaphors are other examples.) It's frustrating to me as a teacher, but as an academic, it's a fascinating phenomenon.

After talking with a few clever adolescents (my children and a limited selection of their friends), we developed a few hypotheses:

  • Humans are social animals, and our history of seeking and defining social pecking orders reinforces hierarchical thinking.
  • Humans have all sorts of ways in which we make distinctions: two easy examples are taste and scent preferences, which are often very strong. Those preferences establish and reinforce hierarchical thinking.
  • Humans already have spatial metaphors we use for abstract concepts, such as time (which we move through, or sometimes time passes by us; we move meetings up, or sometimes back; life is a journey, etc.: see Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought for a lay explanation). Our hierarchical thinking may well be a carryover from whatever gave us those spatial metaphors, or possibly the converse.

This is all speculation; any evolutionary psychologists are welcome to contribute some more rigorous thinking and possibly sources of evidence... anyone want to check with experimentation whether those with stronger senses of taste or smell are more likely to think hierarchically?

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Posted in Random comments on February 27, 2008 11:26 PM |