Our tendency to categorise and the effect on sensemaking

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 22, 2005
Filed in Culture

Patti over at 37 Days provides a brilliant and humorous description of Richard Nisbett’s work on howCow-chook-grass westerners and Asians perceive the world differently. Her renditions of Dick and Jane stories are priceless. According to Nisbett our early years of language development consist of Western children being taught nouns while Asian children are taught verbs. And as a result westerners become obsessed with categorisation while our Asian neighbours are in tune to relationships. OK, perhaps these are broad generalisations but please indulge me for another minute. Here’s another one from Nisbett. What belongs better together, the chicken, grass or cow?

Apparently westerners tend to put the cow and the chicken together (they are both animals) and Asians put the cow with the grass or the chicken with the grass (cows and chickens eat grass).

When helping people design interventions it is important to be mindful of these tendencies to categorise or connect. Most of my work is with westerners and we do like to put things in boxes as quickly as we can. Our job in sensemaking is to help people resist categorising and keep the activities in a state of flux. This allows new things to emerge and helps us avoid snapping into the familiar patterns which constrain our thinking.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Andrew Rixon says:

    Love it Shawn.
    I’ve just seen proof of my ‘inner asian’. I chose the “Cow and Chicken eat the grass” option. 🙂
    Seriously though, I feel there is more to be said about the perils of categorisation in sensemaking….

  2. joitske says:

    Great exercise!!, but I chose the cow and the grass (that may be a Dutch way of sense-making??) 🙂

  3. Hey joitske, I chose the same combination too. Hmmm. We might need to consult Prof Nisbett on this one.

  4. Joitske says:

    Shawn, some traces of Dutch blood somewhere in you?? (that would explain everything..)

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