Hokjesdenken for dummies

There are many kinds of people out there. You can look at the more common or even cliché stereotypes like: nerds, douche bags, the lazy guy, the wigger, sluts, the romantic guy, the artistic guy and so on.
This view on the world and people around you is called “hokjesdenken” in the Dutch language. A synonym for this word is categorization. It is the opposite of “out of the box thinking”, which actually is a worldwide appreciated quality to have.

The problem

Categorization differentiates and groups people in specific categories, usually characterized by a set of (similar) properties. Many people actually give categorization a negative charge. Even Dutch dictionaries give this view a bad name: “Having a (over)simplified view of the world”. Why? Because categorization leads to prejudice.
The dilemma is: you cannot escape using this method of viewing the world. Everyone categorizes and has prejudices to almost everything he/she sees. There are many reasons why you should and must prejudge the things and people around you.

An example: seeing something that has two wings and two legs, you instantly know it is a bird. This way you don’t need to judge every individual bird (crow, duck, eagle). Instead, you just put them in one group, namely: birds. This phenomenon is a very useful property of the brain. This ability to generalize is needed to simplify complex information your brain receives. Without it, you would probably be pretty dysfunctional.

Practical use

Most of the time, you are unaware of this process. When you are in a supermarket and you cannot find the product you are looking for, you automatically look for someone with an apron or a uniform to ask him or her. You actually are putting someone in the “box” of “supermarket staff”.

As you can see, this property of the brain comes in handy to compare different things more easily. Differences will be easier to be defined. You still know that everyone is unique and individual, but it makes it easier to identify a person… “Oh, you mean that nerd with the glasses?”

Innate or not

Considering people cannot ignore this process of categorization means that many choices are based on the feelings connected to a certain group of people. Now when you look at a person who is wearing only black, you might think he is gothic instead of “just a person with black clothes”. This grouping is presumably characterized by the media and environment. This leads to dishonest grouping by only one characteristic: “black clothing”. By now you might wonder where we get the information to group certain people. Is it the media? Is it the education? Is it innate?

I would say that it is most likely not innate. Considering the different forms of social cultures that exist, it is not thinkable that all those cultures are “natural” divarications (branches) of the standard human character. Most of our categories are made up by the media and education.
Some categorizations are innate though. For example: a person who is bigger than you will most likely win in a fight. This is a natural quality (also known as “common sense”) that almost every organism has. You need categorizations to survive. It will help you make a choice considering the properties of the group you put the person in. So, in some way it is needed to know where you stand and to plan your move for a positive outcome. You need it.


The reactions on this “hokjesdenken” are varied.
People who were negatively placed in a box often feel rejection, anger, indignation and sorrow. On the other hand: people who were positively placed in a box feel especially proud, happy and cheerful. A disadvantage is that these positive expectations put a great pressure on the shoulders of that person. It becomes a problem when people have certain expectations of you while you cannot meet them at all. Another major drawback of the attempt to simplify the world is that often only the negative things are seen, and this often leads to racism.


“Hokjesdenken” or categorization or generalization is not always a process you are aware of when it occurs. It is a subconscious process and it is almost impossible to turn it off. Categorization is a quality, a property of almost every organism, simply because it helps to make the right choices to survive.
It is also very helpful when you need some grip to make a decision. You consider all the positive and negative aspects of a certain situation, person or even food. So don’t be ashamed of using this method of categorizing people.
But beware when making decisions that way: you can hurt people unintentionally.
Also, if you notice yourself being very negative about a certain group of people, look out that you are not building up racist feelings.

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