Social Classification Occurs at the Subgroup Level: Evidence Based on a Multidimensional Scaling Study

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Although the categorization of novel social stimuli according to general qualities of gender, age, and race is known to be automatic and primordial, categorizing stimuli into more specific social subgroups (e.g., hippies or businesswomen) is much more informative and cognitively efficient. In this paper, we show that social stimuli are more likely to be grouped into subgroups with an intermediate degree of specificity than into broad, general categories or narrow, highly specific categories. Furthermore, we show that category membership at the intermediate subgroup level predicts social judgments more efficiently than category membership at a more general or more specific level. We discuss the consequences of our results for social cognition and cognitive categorization.

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