Pursuing the Excellent Life
June 23, 2022

Risks and Benefits of Generalizations

Risks and Benefits of Generalizations

Despite my goal of being a good Stoic, two phrases that are commonly-used in online debates “OK boomer” and “snowflake generation,” usually raise my blood pressure. By the way, I know that many online forums are a cesspool of idiocy, but I find them kind of fun; I don’t know what that says about me. What bothers me about these phrases is that they’re intended to dismiss the opinions of entire generations with a once-catchy phrase. When someone uses one of these snippy comments, I know two things. First, they’re out of good arguments, and second, they’re engaging in generalization. In this case, a false generalization. We all generalize and yes, I know that’s a generalization. It’s a necessary part of human functioning. But, relying on false generalizations and over-generalizing can harm your flourishing. In this episode, I discuss generalizations, why they’re necessary, how we use them inappropriately, and what we can do about that.

What are generalizations?

A generalization is a claim that you make about how many members of some group will share some property, feature, or characteristic; it is a general statement or concept that comes from inferences we make about specific cases. Generalizations are intertwined with assumptions, which I discussed in the last episode. As a reminder, an assumption is something you accept as fact without proof. There’s kind of a recursive relationship between assumptions and generalizations. Assumptions feed generalizations and generalizations often lead us to make assumptions. Generalizations, like assumptions, are necessary for navigating life. Like assumptions, generalizations are useful, but just as too much salt spoils a broth, taking generalizations too far can lead to counterproductive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

When generalizations go wrong

Here’s a trivial little story that can help me better explain how generalizations work and how they can fail us. Tracy and I made a run to the hardware store one Sunday. We were hungry, so we stopped into a restaurant near the local mall to grab some lunch. We were greeted cordially and shown to a table. On the way to the table, naturally we looked around. The other diners were dressed up, there was a fancy brunch buffet, in fact, everything was very upscale. Tracy and I were in work clothes. I recall that I was even wearing torn jeans. We thanked the host who showed us to the table, but said we were going to leave.

We made a number of generalizations -- a restaurant near a mall wouldn’t be fancy, especially during the day on a weekend; we were underdressed so we might not get good service; the food was probably too expensive for a quick lunch; service would probably be leisurely (and we were hungry!) We also generalized about how others would generalize about us due to the way we were dressed. These generalizations and even meta-generalizations made us uncomfortable, so we left. This was unfortunate, because, as we learned on a later visit to the restaurant, their food is amazing! They even have crab stuffed beignets! I'm gonna let that sit in your mind for just a second... crab stuffed beignets...

As I said, this is a pretty trivial story, but it makes several points about generalizations. First, we usually generalize without really realizing that we’re doing it. When Tracy and I looked around at the restaurant, we immediately started the generalization process in order to make sense of what was going on. Oh, you do this constantly throughout your day, even if you don’t realize it. Second, we generalized by connecting our current experience with past experiences by matching characteristics of the current experience with our brains’ inventories of past experiences. The dressed up diners, the subdued lighting, the behavior of the host and myriad other characteristics of our surroundings triggered matches to past experiences that shared similar characteristics. My brain made matches to prior experiences at fine dining restaurants, so I generalized from those experiences to the current experience. This, in turn, led me to make numerous assumptions about service quality, service speed, expense, the judgments others would make about us and many other things.

As is sometimes the case with generalizations, we were wrong on several counts. We couldn’t have been treated any more courteously by the restaurant’s staff. When we returned (more appropriately dressed) we found that many families came to the restaurant dressed rather casually, so it wasn’t really all that fancy of a place. Service is also pretty quick, although not rushed. In sum, our generalizations led us astray and we missed out on some excellent Louisiana food. You can’t even begin to imagine how great the crab stuffed beignets are!

 

Why do we generalize?

So, why do we generalize if doing so can cause us problems? The simple answer is, “because we have to.” The world is a complicated place. There’s a lot going on around us almost all the time. To make sense of the torrent of input coming to our brains, we generalize. Generalizing helps us make sense of a novel situation by connecting it to past experiences. Generalizing occurs naturally; it’s a fundamental human learning process.

So, how does generalization work? Basically, you generalize by transferring knowledge across multiple situations. You transfer your knowledge from prior experiences to a new experience in order to make sense of the new experience. When we saw the fancy furnishings and subdued lighting in the restaurant, we interpreted what this meant based on our prior experiences in restaurants with similar ambiance. This all happens very quickly, almost instantly in many cases. We connected this novel experience, the first visit to this particular restaurant, by recognizing the similarities to prior restaurant experiences. These connections led us to classify the restaurant as “fancy” and make related assumptions. Had we seen kitschy stuff hanging on the walls, bright lights, and loud music, we would have classified the restaurant as “casual” and made different assumptions.

Here’s the thing about generalizations. They’re not bad, in fact, they’re beneficial much of the time, maybe even most of the time. And, as I said earlier, generalizations help us make sense of a complicated world. Generalizations can even keep us safe. If you’re allergic to peanuts, you might generalize this to cashews and avoid those tasty nuggets of salty goodness. Although sad, this is a pretty reasonable protective generalization. A more serious protective generalization might be passing a poorly lit, run-down gas station for a better kept, well-lit one. There might be nothing unsafe about the rundown station, but it’s pretty reasonable to generalize that the better kept one is safer.

Generalization error

Like assumptions, generalizations are useful, unless they’re not. When aren’t they useful? Well, when they’re wrong and you rely on them. Pretty simple, but true.

So, what can you do to protect yourself against faulty generalizations? Well, I’ll get to that in a few minutes. First, though, it might be helpful to understand two things, assumptions that underlie generalizations, and cognitive biases (or errors in thinking) that are based on generalization errors.

When you generalize, you make three basic assumptions. First, you assume that you have a representative sample of whatever group you’re generalizing about, restaurants in my little story. Second, you also assume that you’re making an accurate appraisal of whatever characteristic you’re assigning to that group. Tracy and I did this for several characteristics, the cost of the food, the pace of the service, how we would be treated, just to name a few. Third, you assume that your “margin of error” is either low or non-material, which just means that if you’re wrong it really won’t matter. If any of these assumptions are wrong, you’re  in danger of inappropriate generalization. Often, this isn’t a huge deal, but sometimes it can be, as is the case with stereotyping and prejudice.

A large number of cognitive biases are related to generalizing. A cognitive bias is just a subconscious error in thinking that deviates from rationality. Let’s look at a few cognitive biases related to generalizations.

The first is the hasty generalization. This is when we generalize based on too small of a sample, so we don’t capture the diversity of the group about which we’re generalizing. A related error is the biased generalization, which occurs when we generalize based on a sample that doesn’t adequately represent the group’s diversity. This might happen even if you have a large sample, when that sample isn’t representative of the entire group.

The next few cognitive biases relate to a particularly pernicious problem with generalizing, stereotyping. The first two are attribution biases. The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to overemphasize person-based factors and underemphasize the role and strength of situational factors. Maybe someone treats you rudely. You might generalize from other rude people you’ve encountered and conclude that this person is a worthless jerk. But, maybe they’re just having a terrible, awful day, and they’re actually a very nice person. When you assume they're a worthless jerk, you’ve made a fundamental attribution error. The group attribution error is similar. You make this error when you believe that the characteristics of a single group member are representative of the group as a whole. If you meet one college professor who is uppity and arrogant, and you conclude that all college professors are that way, you’ve made a group attribution error. Really, you have. Not all professors are arrogant, although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some are.

The outgroup homogeneity bias is interesting, despite its odd name. This occurs when we view members of a group of which we are not a member as being less varied than our own group. Maybe you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan and you view all Chicago Cubs fans as being sad little delusional jerks. You’ve fallen into the outgroup homogeneity trap. I can attest that not all Cubs fans are jerks, although they may be a bit delusional. (Actually, the Cards-Cubs rivalry is one of the best natured in all of sports, in my experience.)

All of these play into stereotyping, which is when we expect a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about the individual. I did this once when a very large, overall-clad man came into the computer store where I worked in the 1980s. Yeah, computer stores used to be a thing. I immediately stereotyped him and assumed he was looking for directions or something other than buying a computer. It turned out he was a brilliant guy who wanted a computer to write code to do physics calculations. Boy was I wrong. Fortunately, I was raised to be polite, so I treated the man well and got a nice commission and even made a bit of a friend. But, I fell victim to the stereotype bias.

We don’t have time to go into all of the societal problems caused by stereotyping. Let’s just say that stereotyping has led to considerable harm in this world, and we should all avoid making judgments and decisions based on thoughtless stereotypes.

Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralizing is also a problem. Overgeneralizing occurs when you mentally use overly broad language in your evaluations of things and events. “Why do I always pick the slow line?” “I never get my way.” “The crying baby is always sitting near me.” “No one will ever love me.” This one reminds me of my all time favorite graffiti, which I saw in a Tampa dive bar. “She won’t drink tequila, and she will never love me.” I had to wonder if there was some sort of a causal relationship there.

We all overgeneralize to some extent, but overgeneralizations can be quite harmful. Overgeneralizing magnifies the effect of a single event, which can lead to anger, despondence, and other bad outcomes. These sorts of overgeneralizations can be a nasty form of negative self-talk, which is certainly harmful to your flourishing. Negative overgeneralizing indicates a bias towards making negative inferences about oneself, which is associated with depression and maladaptive reactions to failure and negative feedback. In short, it’s bad, don’t do it.

To summarize, we all generalize. Generalization is a necessary cognitive function that helps us deal with life’s complexity. But, generalizations can, and often do, lead to errors in judgment. The two ways this happens is through inappropriate generalizing, and overgeneralizing. That brings up the question of how we can avoid these dangers. Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts, but you already knew that, generalizing from earlier episodes.

Avoiding generalization errors

Awareness is often the first step to changing negative thinking or behaviors, and generalization errors are no exception. In order to be less subject to generalizations, you need to be aware of when you make them, and the impacts your generalizations have on yourself and others. Generalizations often occur when you encounter something or someone new, and as part of making sense of things, you assign someone or something to a group. When making a faulty generalization has serious potential consequences, pause your automatic thinking and consider two questions; What generalizations might you make in this situation?, and What if those generalizations are wrong? Doing this repeatedly will help you build your awareness of generalizations and their causes and effects. Be especially aware of overgeneralizations that you apply to yourself. Avoid overgeneralizing based on negative experiences and outcomes. Your past is not your future.

You might also consider engaging in counter-generalization thinking. By this I mean actively seeking out counterexamples to stereotypes. Look for things that appear out of the ordinary, or at least what you consider ordinary. This can be especially effective in dealing with stereotypes by identifying and focusing on counter-stereotypes. I’m not going to give examples here, you need to think about the stereotypes you hold, and seek out counter-examples. This will disrupt the flow of reinforcement of stereotypes, which will weaken them.

Finally, treat generalizations as hypotheses and subject them to testing. This requires being aware of your generalizations, of course. In important situations, only apply generalizations that  have been proven accurate, helpful, practical, and where there is a net benefit to using the generalization. Even then, proceed with caution; remember your generalization may be wrong.

By the way, when researching this episode, I ran across a handy flowchart about using generalizations. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Well, that’s enough for now. I hope that learning about generalizations will help you better understand when to generalize and when not to. Of course, doing so will involve generalizations!

I’ll leave you with the wise words of Kierkegaard, “Once you label me you negate me.” Don’t negate yourself and others through harmful generalizations. Avoid this, and you’ll make the world a little better.

Until next time, be well my friends.

 

The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.

 

If you liked this episode, you might want to listen to episode 32,”The Cage of Your Assumptions.”

For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”