Categorical lenses to interpret and filter the world

Dear buddy,

I want to share a great insight to you. It is a massive way of seeing the world through lenses for me.

Mental categories (i.e. concepts) dominate the way we think, distort all the cues, they bias us big time.

Categorical blinders in action (default assumptions)

Example 1:

Imagine talking to a stranger in a party. He has a bald head, piercings, a leather jacket with some questionable patterns that resemble awfully lot a nazi symbol.

He starts talking about 2 immigrants that walked by him a moment ago. The tone of his voice sounds judgemental.

At this point it is clear in which category you are operating in, you can’t help but think “This guy is definitely a bigot.

He starts a discussion with you about immigration policy, and before he even had a chance, you are ready to process everything he says through this lens. It will distort all the cues and highlight anything he says in a negative light.

You think his position is inherently wrong (unless there is a HUGE shift in his tone, that makes you second-guess the selected category about this guy). Anything he says, you are already looking for counter arguments, or just reservedly nod to skip this potential platform for heated arguments.

Example 2:

You see a bum who is about to ask you for change and pitch a story how he really tries hard to get his life together.

As you notice him trying to grab your attention, you already labeled him as a member of a mental category that encompasses drugs, alcoholism, low-life and other negative things that “explains” this guy.

The bum didn’t have a chance, your brain filtered his existence through this categorical lens, and without a doubt you ignored him and continued your day.

Bottom line: We have such representational heuristics to quickly activate a corresponding mental category about people and things, to make sense of them. Their identity and existence will be filtered ruthlessly, and we will be inevitably biased in our initial opinion about them.

This is unfair, but it is very energy-saving shortcut to not drown in all of the attention grabbing processes around us.

Our biases are generally very useful and efficient. If our brains tried to pay equal amounts of attention to all things around us, we would drown in confusion. - Douglas Hofstadter

The mind, as a product of biological evolution, is subject to the same economic principle that its cost must be lower than its value. It would not be economical for the mind to develop capacities to detect everything - Jing Chen

Most frequent trouble in problem-solving is a misunderstanding of the problem statement, meaning that the wrong categories are mobilized

This is indicated by some research mentioned in Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Surfaces and essences”.

Here’s a classic problem for you to solve:

Father dies in a serious traffic accident, and his son, a passenger in the same vehicle, is taken by ambulance to the hospital in critical condition. An emergency operation is needed to save his life. The surgeon on duty comes quickly into the operating room, suddenly goes white as a sheet, and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy — he’s my son!” How is this possible?



It’s extremely common for people to read and reread this story many times, always thinking that the boy cannot possibly have two fathers. The solution is easy for anyone who is navigating the proper mental category and are not blinded by their default assumption that the surgeon must be a man.

Hofstadter makes couple other good pointers about this story: Did it at any point occur to you that the vehicle involved was a bus? The story doesn’t mention “car” once. The default assumption about traffic accident is that it involves a car, as opposed to, say, a bus, a truck, a motorcycle… Such default assumptions are nearly impossible to detect and overthrow. This happens all the time in our daily lives.

Once the proper categorization is found, finding the solution is often quick and easy. - Douglas Hofstadter

Implications for problem solving

I think what Hofstadter points out, has very nice parallels to many great minds talking about problem solving: defining the problem is far more important than the solution.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” - Einstein

So a lot of the time we have the solution already in our mind, it’s just that we are not mobilizing the proper mental categories.

Ways of filtering the world

It is a shame that we have such a great insights and models within us to see and filter our world, but we can mobilize only a handful of them at a single event.

For example, if I have a business problem, I know I have so many ways to look at the thing (e.g. my knowledge about design, history, programming, math, neuroscience, economics ALL of these has something to help me explain the problem), but only some of these will be mobilized, even if there would be some juicy creative solutions within the different categories.

Imagine you’ve had it with poor health, and seriously decide to change your life for the better by going to the gym. You are filtering your actions and surroundings through this lens: you eat better, you train better, you educate yourself on the matter.

Imagine being very excited of learning about design thinking. You want to design your whole life and everything around you. The environment will dominantly be interpreted through this lens. You design your workspace, daily routes, maybe you start to design your own product.

Then, imagine a month later, you lose this interest and switch your focus on something else, perhaps programming. Design thinking is very easily transferred to many domains, but maybe instead you get more excited about rational thinking, algorithms, information transmission and math.

The more prominent this new mental category grows, the more it starts to filter your daily life in various situations. Maybe design thinking will still pop up here and there, but perhaps the programming lens becomes over the years a dominant way of seeing and explaining the world.

Bottom line: When a new important mental category is built, it tends to be amplified in its presence, and acts as a filter for a lot of things. The more excited we are about it, the more dominantly we will interpret our world with it.

This effect tends to fade away, and the mental category will over time only be selectively triggered at the time of need, instead of filtering everything. (Depending on the magnitude, excitement, how much you are working with this matter and many other factors).

Examples of my own life

  • Incentive lens

    I was studying incentives and excited about the idea. Suddenly everything around me was filtered through this lens. A startup problem turned into how to align incentives and vision with my partners. Observing a person’s unwilligness to do something was explained by lack of incentives, not by his lack of dedication.

    Today: This filter is still strong and pops up selectively based on the context. Typically on business matters.

  • Self-image lens

    Back in the 60s Maxwell Maltz came up with this idea about self-image, and how our actions always match the perception of ourselves and our environment (what we believe to be true about them). I was excited of this, and felt like I was doing a cognitive therapy to myself, fixing my old emotional scars and updating false beliefs about myself and my capabilities.

    Most of my social actions were filtered through this lens. A meetup with my old friends was filtered through this lens. It would explain my “role” and position within the group dynamics (how I viewed myself). My self-esteem was filtered through this lens, and explained with lot of false beliefs about my capabilities and value as a human being. Social anxiety was about deep beliefs of myself as somehow inferior to others, which of course was very irrational.

    Today: This lens helped me explain a lot of my social behavior, and I believe it among many other factors, changed my personality a lot. Many lessons and ways of filtering the world through this lens pops up in my life almost daily.

  • Jobs to be done lens

    Jobs to be done explains that people buy consumer goods to get “jobs” done. They don’t want a drill but a hole in a wall.

    I was developing a widget for productivity, and it was filtered through lens of “how to make the person feel good about what he’s done today” instead of “how to make the coolest productivity app with innovative features”. Eating a bagel would be about hiring a bagel to get the job of eliminating hunger done.

    Today: Very prominent way of explaining people’s behavior. This is mobilized almost anytime I’m dealing with consumer action or designing something. Super useful.

  • Probability lens

    This is back in the early days before discovering free learning and SuperMemo. I would study probability in a class. Standing at the traffic lights would turn into “What is the probability that the lights turn green in 5 seconds.” Going to the bathroom would turn into “what are the odds that I’m gonna be hit with a split urine stream and I have to clean it up.”

    Today: This is of course kinda universal filter for our everyday lives, but it isn’t very useful to be filtering for example the event of “standing at the traffic lights” or “what are the odds my friend arrives within 5 minutes” with this lens. It just doesn’t have good returns, so my brain dropped that aspect of it quickly.

  • Energy lens

    During the time this post was a draft, I was crazy on biological energy expenditure. I was looking at foods as a source of energy and anything I do as an energy investment. Especially things like if I’m feeling cold (welcome Finland’s winter), I looked at it through energy lens. Thermal energy costs are one of the biggest costs in human body. The more energy I spend on maintaining my body temperature, the less I have for productive stuff. So I make sure to wear very warm clothes even inside of the house.

    Today: This is a very new one, and I think it will grow to be a great mental category, and I will learn more about it, but I know it probably won’t have good returns to explain ton of your daily life situations with this. I expect to see this less, probably very selectively on situations where I’m dealing with lack of energy.

Bottom line: Each of these lenses help and are still there to filter my world at the time of need. Each of them are selectively triggered by the context — even if most could be universally applicable to most context.

Even if one category could serve as a creative explanation for a situation, it might just not measure up to something quicker and less costly pattern to explain this situation (e.g. some automatic subconscious pattern you developed throughout your life to explain the situation). The mental category with best returns in terms of energy usage and explanatory power will win.

This is why our old habits are so hard to change, they’re low cost “highways” and provenly “good enough” to explain a situation. Even if your newly born mental category would be “better” and more creative, its activation might be more costly with not enough benefits for the brain to justify the usage in real life situations where simultaniously many other processes are grabbing our attention and energy.

Have a great rest of the week,