Consider the following set of objects: some dust, papers, a computer monitor, two pens, a cup, and an orange.
Although you’ve (probably) never seen this particular truck before, you know a lot about it because of the knowledge you’ve accumulated in the past about the features in the category of trucks. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]
What do these things have in common? Only that they all happen to be on my desk as I write this. This set of things can be considered a category, a set of objects that can be treated as equivalent in some way. But, most of our categories seem much more informative—they share many properties. For example, consider the following categories: trucks, wireless devices, weddings, psychopaths, and trout. Although the objects in a given category are different from one another, they have many commonalities. When you know something is a truck, you know quite a bit about it. The psychology of categories concerns how people learn, remember, and use informative categories such as trucks or psychopaths.
The mental representations we form of categories are called concepts. There is a category of trucks in the world, and I also have a concept of trucks in my head. We assume that people’s concepts correspond more or less closely to the actual category, but it can be useful to distinguish the two, as when someone’s concept is not really correct.
Concepts are at the core of intelligent behavior. We expect people to be able to know what to do in new situations and when confronting new objects. If you go into a new classroom and see chairs, a blackboard, a projector, and a screen, you know what these things are and how they will be used. You’ll sit on one of the chairs and expect the instructor to write on the blackboard or project something onto the screen. You do this even if you have never seen any of these particular objects before, because you have concepts of classrooms, chairs, projectors, and so forth, that tell you what they are and what you’re supposed to do with them. Furthermore, if someone tells you a new fact about the projector—for example, that it has a halogen bulb—you are likely to extend this fact to other projectors you encounter. In short, concepts allow you to extend what you have learned about a limited number of objects to a potentially infinite set of entities.
You know thousands of categories, most of which you have learned without careful study or instruction. Although this accomplishment may seem simple, we know that it isn’t, because it is difficult to program computers to solve such intellectual tasks. If you teach a learning program that a robin, a swallow, and a duck are all birds, it may not recognize a cardinal or peacock as a bird. As we’ll shortly see, the problem is that objects in categories are often surprisingly diverse.
Simpler organisms, such as animals and human infants, also have concepts (Mareschal, Quinn, & Lea, 2010). Squirrels may have a concept of predators, for example, that is specific to their own lives and experiences. However, animals likely have many fewer concepts and cannot understand complex concepts such as mortgages or musical instruments.