“You are either for us or against us.”
“The glass is half full or it is half empty.”
“Issues are black or white.”
These are dichotomies; divisions of the world into two distinct and non-overlapping categories. Frequently, dichotomies blur the subtleties of the real world, but sometimes they are useful. They help to simplify complex issues.
One of the most useful dichotomies I have run into is the division of people into “similarity seers” or “difference seers.” If your first response to this statement was, “How can you tell them apart?” you are most likely a difference seer. A similarity seer would likely respond, “Wow, that really clears things up!”
I first heard this concept from developmental psychologist Martin Hoffman at the University of Michigan. I was in the Comparative and Physiological Psychology graduate program at Michigan. My then-wife, Carol, was one of Hoffman’s grad students, and had encouraged me to audit one of Hoffman’s seminars on Developmental Psychology. Hoffman reasoned that seeing similarities among things was an extension of Piaget’s concept of “assimilation,” while concentrating on differences was an extension of “accommodation.”
In extremely simplified terms, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development described assimilation as the gathering of new information into existing categories (called schema), and accommodation as the process of creating new categories when additional information causes items not to fit into their current categories. Learning proceeds by a series of alternating assimilations and accommodations.
For example, when a child first encounters a friendly dog, s/he would incorporate the new creature into an existing category, perhaps something along the lines of “warm cuddly things.” As experience with dogs reveals that they aren’t the same as other cuddly creatures, say human house members, the child would accommodate by creating a sub-category of warm cuddly things for dog-like things. If the child then encounters a cat, it is first assimilated into the dog category because there are numerous similarities: four legs, furry, big ears, long tails, whiskers on the nose, etc. But with more experience with dogs and cats, the child soon becomes aware of the differences between them and “accommodates” to these differences by creating a new schema for cats.
If the child then sees a cow, it may call it a dog or cat until s/he encounters the characteristics of cow-ness that don’t fit with dog-ness or cat-ness. As growth continues schema are repeatedly refined and formed into hierarchic relationships, with “four-legged creatures” including subcategories of “dogs,” “cats,” and “cows.” There will also be new subordinate “dog” schema for “friendly dogs,” “not friendly dogs,” and so on.
Hoffman suggested that, as people grow up, one or the other of these opposing processes becomes dominant. Those individuals whose cognitive style favors assimilation are more likely to see the similarities between disparate items, while those whose style favors accommodation are more likely to focus on their differences.
These tendencies have serious implications for career choices. A similarity seer would fail spectacularly as an epidemiologist because epidemiologists are required to detect covert differences between their subjects’ experiences. Difference seers make lousy theorists because theorists are required to pull together a broad range of seemingly unrelated events, in spite of some inconsistencies.
In ideal circumstances, you would want both types working together. In reality, this is difficult to achieve because they seem to be speaking different languages. Difference seers frequently accuse similarity seers of glossing over important facts. Similarity seers often accuse difference seers of trivial nitpicking.
I, personally, am a similarity seer. If any difference seers have made it to the end of this essay, they are probably thinking, “He is so WRONG to leave out so many critical details!”