Nature of Categories

Traditionally, it has been assumed that categories are well-defined. This means that you can give a definition that specifies what is in and out of the category. Such a definition has two parts. First, it provides the necessary features for category membership: What must objects have in order to be in it? Second, those features must be jointly sufficient for membership: If an object has those features, then it is in the category. For example, if I defined a dog as a four-legged animal that barks, this would mean that every dog is four-legged, an animal, and barks, and also that anything that has all those properties is a dog.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find definitions for many familiar categories.


Here is a very good dog, but one that does not fit perfectly into a well-defined category where all dogs have four legs. [Image: State Farm,, CC BY 2.0, BRvSA7]

Definitions are neat and clear-cut; the world is messy and often unclear. For example, consider our definition of dogs. In reality, not all dogs have four legs; not all dogs bark. I knew a dog that lost her bark with age (this was an improvement); no one doubted that she was still a dog. It is often possible to find some necessary features (e.g., all dogs have blood and breathe), but these features are generally not sufficient to determine category membership (you also have blood and breathe but are not a dog).

Even in domains where one might expect to find clear-cut definitions, such as science and law, there are often problems. For example, many people were upset when Pluto was downgraded from its status as a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006. Upset turned to outrage when they discovered that there was no hard-and-fast definition of planethood: “Aren’t these astronomers scientists? Can’t they make a simple definition?” In fact, they couldn’t. After an astronomical organization tried to make a definition for planets, a number of astronomers complained that it might not include accepted planets such as Neptune and refused to use it. If everything looked like our Earth, our moon, and our sun, it would be easy to give definitions of planets, moons, and stars, but the universe has sadly not conformed to this ideal.

Fuzzy Categories

Borderline Items

Experiments also showed that the psychological assumptions of well-defined categories were not correct. Hampton (1979) asked subjects to judge whether a number of items were in different categories. He did not find that items were either clear members or clear nonmembers.


Table 1. Examples of two categories, with members ordered by typicality (from Rosch & Mervis, 1975)

Instead, he found many items that were just barely considered category members and others that were just barely not members, with much disagreement among subjects. Sinks were barely considered as members of the kitchen utensil category, and sponges were barely excluded. People just included seaweed as a vegetable and just barely excluded tomatoes and gourds. Hampton found that members and nonmembers formed a continuum, with no obvious break in people’s membership judgments. If categories were well defined, such examples should be very rare. Many studies since then have found such borderline members that are not clearly in or clearly out of the category.

McCloskey and Glucksberg (1978) found further evidence for borderline membership by asking people to judge category membership twice, separated by two weeks. They found that when people made repeated category judgments such as “Is an olive a fruit?” or “Is a sponge a kitchen utensil?” they changed their minds about borderline items—up to 22 percent of the time. So, not only do people disagree with one another about borderline items, they disagree with themselves! As a result, researchers often say that categories are fuzzy, that is, they have unclear boundaries that can shift over time.


A related finding that turns out to be most important is that even among items that clearly are in a category, some seem to be “better” members than others (Rosch, 1973). Among birds, for example, robins and sparrows are very typical. In contrast, ostriches and penguins are very atypical (meaning not typical). If someone says, “There’s a bird in my yard,” the image you have will be of a smallish passerine bird such as a robin, not an eagle or hummingbird or turkey.

You can find out which category members are typical merely by asking people. Table 1 shows a list of category members in order of their rated typicality. Typicality is perhaps the most important variable in predicting how people interact with categories. The following text box is a partial list of what typicality influences.

We can understand the two phenomena of borderline members and typicality as two sides of the same coin. Think of the most typical category member: This is often called the category prototype. Items that are less and less similar to the prototype become less and less typical. At some point, these less typical items become so atypical that you start to doubt whether they are in the category at all. Is a rug really an example of furniture? It’s in the home like chairs and tables, but it’s also different from most furniture in its structure and use. From day to day, you might change your mind as to whether this atypical example is in or out of the category. So, changes in typicality ultimately lead to borderline members.


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Nature of Categories by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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