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Paris attack and the problem of categorization

Blog - Paris Attack

The Paris attacks have been a major shock and we are understandably upset. Most of us have been reminded of some of the earlier acts of terror such as the 26/11 attack in Mumbai or even 09/11 in New York. It also reminded us of the mixed emotions (fear, anger and despair) that we felt during the attacks.

Since the earlier attacks were also targeted at civilians, we consider this act in the same vein. However, this Atlantic Article – What ISIS really wants suggests that, maybe, this attack is different. The article refers to the origin of the Islamic State from al-Qaeda, the formation of its leader al-Baghdadi, its strong belief of being a key agent of the apocalypse and many other qualities. But the most important point that it tries to make is that ISIS is not like al-Qaeda or any other organization that we tend to categorize as terrorists. The author suggests that we seem to have misunderstood jihadism as monolithic or of a single kind which it is not.

We can probably call this a problem of categorization or essentially mis-categorization.

Over the years, we have learned to categorize things based on certain qualities or labels. This helps us stay organized and also form strategies to deal with a particular category. For example, we use “Soda” as a broad category for all carbonated soft drinks as Coca-cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.

While this helps us make good decisions in most instances, it may also back fire in certain cases. Consider the way we tend to deal with diet calories. Often we try to measure our calorie intake, we assume all calories are the same irrespective of the source. This may lead to adopting a diet that lacks the nutrients essential for a healthy body. Similarly, we end up stereotyping people, concepts and ideas to fit a category in our mind. And then use learnings and strategies that is applicable in a particular context in a wrong context.

The Atlantic article suggests that this mis-categorization may have been a contributing factor to the failure to control ISIS.

So, how do we deal with this problem?

In our work in the financial services sector, we managed a situation where customers were categorizing their entire debt in the same way. By building sub-categories with new labels, we were able to change this perception and influence the strategies that the customers adopted.

We could probably do something similar in the case of these organizations. Instead of placing both ISIS and al-Qaeda in the same category, we could create sub categories with new names based on the agents’ motive. While this will not solve the problem in hand, it may still influence our strategy to deal with it.

Image Credit: aljazeera

#behaviour #context #nonconscious #paris

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