Labels, Concepts, Division, Polarization


The following is excerpted from Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono:

It is like having two wooden boxes side by side into which one is putting ping-pong balls. The balls have to go into one box or the other. . . .

If one of the boxes is labelled “black balls” and the other one “white balls” then each ball is dropped into the appropriate box depending on whether it is black or white. If there are any grey balls then some sort of decision has to be made as to whether they go into the black box or the white box. Once the decision has been made the balls go into the white box just as if they were white or into the black box just as if they were black. The apparent nature of the ball has been shifted to make it fit in with the established pattern.

A whole series of boxes might be imagined, each with its own label. As each item came along it would be put into whichever box had the most appropriate label. It would not matter if this most appropriate label was not really very appropriate. There is a shift to fit in with whatever labels are available. Once the shift has been made then it is impossible to tell the item in the box is any different from the other items in the box.


Similarly when there is an established label a new item is either pushed right under that label or else pushed right out. In a community that is sharply divided into “us” and “them” any stranger who happens along is assessed as to whether he is “one of us” or “one of them.”

Probably the stranger has a mix of characteristics which would make hm fit either group. But whichever way the decision goes his characteristics are at once assumed to have changed so that they match exactly the characteristics of the label. . . .

From a practical point of view this polarizing system is very effective. What it means is that one can establish a few major categories and then push everything into one or the other of them. Instead of having to assess everything in detail and then decide how one is going to react one merely assesses whether it fits into one category or another. This is not even a matter of exact fit but of pushing it one way or another. Once the thing has been pushed into a category then reaction is easy since the categories are established and so is the reaction to them.

New categories

At what point does a new category arise? At what point does one decide that the new item will not fit into any of the boxes and so create a new box? At what point does one decide that grey ping-pong balls would go in a special box marked “grey”? At what point is it decided that the stranger is neither “we” nor “they” but something else? The danger of polarization is that things can be shifted around so much that there never comes a point where a new category has to be created. Nor is there any indication as to how many established categories there should be.

One can get by with very few categories.

The dangers of the polarizing tendency may now be summarized:

  • Once established the categories become permanent.
  • New information is altered so it fits an established category. Once it has done so there is no indication that it is any different from anything else under that category.
  • At no point is it essential to create new categories. One can get by with very few categories.
  • The fewer the categories the greater the degree of shift.

Lateral thinking

In order to escape from these labels one can do three things:

  • Challenge the labels.
  • Try and do without them.
  • Establish new labels.

Challenge the labels

  • Why am I using this label?
  • What does it really mean?
  • Is it essential?
  • Am I just using it as a convenient cliché?
  • Why do I have to accept that label used by other people?

As it implies challenging a label means a direct challenge to the use of a label, a word, or a name. It does not mean that one disagrees with its use or that one has any better alternative. It just means that one is not prepared to accept the cliché label without challenging it.

Trying to do without labels

Using the label “mob” it is easy to develop a certain line of thought but if one has to do without the label then one might be able to look at the situation in a diffferent way. One tries to see things as they actually are and not in terms of labels.

Establishing new labels

The fewer the categories the greater the shift and distortion. By establishing a new category one can accept information with less distortion. So one establishes a new label in order to protect incoming information from the polarizing effect of already established labels.

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