I understand someone why we like hierarchical social structures today. They are present across virtually all cultures and we've used them for a very long time.

However, it appears we also gravitate toward organizing things in hierarchies as well, not just people. When we study topics, we draw diagrams of hierarchies. When we write textbooks, we subdivide information into ranges of topics and them smaller ranges, and then the individual concepts themselves. We put our paperwork in folders, in filing cabinets, which are arranged in shelves, which are arranged in rows of shelves, and so on...

Recently we've spent more time exploring other structures like networks with nodes, but our default still seems to be hierarchies.

It's not just organizations and governments that we organize this way, but also information. Why is this?

Regarding the utility of hierarchies in organization information, binary search trees in computer science allow finding indexed information very quickly (Adamchik, 2009). However it is common knowledge that we have been organizing information hierarchically long before the advent of computer science. So did we realize this intuitively?

Perhaps this predisposition bleeds over in some way from social hierarchies? Could our other predisposition to see human intention in inanimate objects have led us to use the same structure for information (Coolidge, 2016)?


Adamchik, V. S. (2009) Binary Trees. Retrieved from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~adamchik/15-121/lectures/Trees/trees.html

Coolidge, F. L. (2016). Why People See Faces When There Are None: Pareidolia. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-think-neandertal/201608/why-people-see-faces-when-there-are-none-pareidolia

  • $\begingroup$ Would the concealed downvoter mind telling me how I might improve my post? $\endgroup$
    – iceburger
    Apr 26, 2020 at 21:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The current citations are wholly irrelevant, as is the analogy to social hierarchies if you ask me. Binary search trees have nothing to do with hierarchical 'organization', but is a data structure for faster item retrieval times for computers. Unless you want to argue anyone would manually structure information in a binary search tree? I also don't see how your Coolidge citation is related at all. I already gave you guidance on how to formulate this better before, so I did not feel the need to comment. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Apr 27, 2020 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ As I commented before, "There is quite a bit of research on this in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) literature. ... Some terminology to google for to get you started: "filers vs pilers". The seminal paper on this by Malone has been cited 1005 times and should get you started with finding sources.". $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Apr 27, 2020 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


This is not out of desire, it is out of necessity of abiding a feature of information and knowledge itself. Quite frankly, this goes into a bit of data science and information theory (I personally learned of this through data visualization. Nonetheless, I still think it is a relevant question).

According to Richard Wurman in his book, Information Anxiety, “information may be infinite, however… the organization [or structuring] of information is finite.” Furthermore, “Each vantage point, each mode of organization will create a new structure. And each new structure will enable you to see a different meaning, acting as a new method of classification from which the whole can be grasped and understood.”

The three main ways of organizing information are as follows (please note that those within parenthesis are my personal examples, the rest are more main/established ones):

  1. Location
  2. Categorical
    a. (similarity/relatedness)
    b. (problem/solution)
    c. (cause/effect)
  3. Hierarchical
    a. Alphabetical
    b. Time
    c. (deductive/inductive order)
    d. (importance)
    e. (simplicity/complexity)

In relevance to hierarchical information and psychology though, it is worthwhile to note that both foundations of language and logic are found through the alphabetical category. These, in turn, are fundamental features of the human mind and are, in large part, also means through which the mind makes connections. Also, tendencies towards hierarchical information could also be explained through using time as an anchor to which to describe things in relation to such as the past, present, and future.

  • $\begingroup$ Just saying, the only part of this that actually addresses the question is "desire". Could you explain what you mean by this a little better? $\endgroup$
    – iceburger
    Apr 26, 2020 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ If there are only three options of organizing information, it follows that obviously one of them would be chosen. Regardless, I attempted to elaborate more :) @iceburger $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2020 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ When you mention time, are you talking about a probability tree? $\endgroup$
    – iceburger
    Apr 26, 2020 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ That is one way in which the future can be modeled, so yes I think that is encompassed when I mentioned time. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2020 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ Ah yes, encompassed $\endgroup$
    – iceburger
    Apr 27, 2020 at 20:28

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