Subcategorization is a social identity dynamic that can have either negative or positive ramifications for behavior. This psychological process happens when a person or group is deliberately excluded from comparison. It’s what US Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez just did to her teammate Simone Biles when she told Aly Raisman before the floor exercise competition, “If you get silver again, you’re the best, because Simone doesn’t count.”
Raisman later echoed the sentiment, noting “I don’t even consider myself competing against her. It’s like she’s at another level. She’s incredible. I’m in awe watching her, and I train with her every day.”
Essentially, her teammates consider Biles in another category of competition entirely, so they don’t judge their own success relative to hers. In this situation, where Biles dominates her sport, this is a fantastic way for other gymnasts to compete at their best, support someone who is elevating women’s gymnastics, and feel good about their personal outcomes.
Subcategorization is a healthy process when it helps people gain perspective on their own performance. We shouldn’t judge our intelligence compared to Albert Einstein, our beauty compared to Gisele Bündchen, or our athleticism compared to Simone Biles, or we’ll never feel satisfied.
It can be unhealthy, on the other hand, when subcategorization is used to justify prejudiced behavior or maintain stereotypes in the face of counter-evidence. If you’ve ever heard someone claim not to be sexist/racist/homophobic because they have a female/black/gay friend, you’ve experienced the dark side of subcategorization. Rather than re-evaluating a negative opinion of a group based on evidence that individuals within the group defy stereotypes, the person carves out the contradictory evidence into its own category.
The Olympic gymnasts, on the other hand, have leveraged subcategorization to curtail jealousy, permit pride in a teammate, and protect their own happiness at silver medals (a known challenge!).