Using Concepts to Classify the World

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  • 0:01 Concept
  • 1:59 Prototype
  • 3:02 Typicality
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What has wings, feathers, and lives in a nest? That's not a riddle; it's a concept. Watch this lesson to find out more about what concepts are, what a prototype is, and how typicality influences the way you think about the world.


You know the song that says, 'Bird is the word?' Well, a bird is much more than just a word. It's even more than just an animal. A bird is a concept, or a way to classify something in your mind.

How do I know it's a concept? Think about it: when I say 'bird,' you probably get a specific image in your mind. The same is true if I say 'car' or 'fruit,' which are also concepts. Essentially, if something is a bird (or car or a fruit), it has certain features that most or all birds (or cars or fruits) share. So, it's kind of like a shortcut in your mind: if I say that there's a bird on my windowsill, you can picture what that bird looks like and probably guess what it's doing.

There are several reasons to use concepts. The first, which you've already seen, is to communicate with others. It's a kind of a shorthand. Instead of saying to you, 'There's something outside my window. It has feathers and wings and it's singing,' I can just say, 'There's a bird outside my window.' You can probably guess that it has feathers and wings and sings.

Another reason that concepts are helpful is that they help preserve space in your memory. Instead of having to remember every single bird you've ever seen or heard, for example, you can file them away under the general category of birds. That takes a lot less effort than trying to remember every single one!

Finally, concepts help you make predictions and generalizations about the world. If I tell you there's a bird on my windowsill, you can probably predict that it will sing and/or that it has a nest somewhere. Your concept of what a bird is and does helps you.

Let's look at how we use concepts, in particular the idea of a prototype and typicality.


Let's say that I decide to tell you a story. 'Once upon a time, there was a bird,' I start. Wait! What kind of bird? What's the bird like? Am I telling a story about a sparrow or a penguin?

A prototype is a representative of a concept. It is an example of something with the general qualities that make up a concept. I'll bet when I said 'Once upon a time, there was a bird,' you imagined something that was much more like a sparrow than a penguin, didn't you? That's because a sparrow is generally considered to be a prototype of a bird: it has wings, it flies, it builds a nest, and it lays eggs.

This is true of other concepts, too. When I mention that I ate some fruit a few minutes ago, what do you picture? Am I eating an apple or an olive or a tomato? Of those three, apples are more of a prototype of a piece of fruit, even though technically they are all fruit.

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