generalization

Despite the elegance and necessity of generalization, there is however a danger to its use. It is the case when we generalize from examples which are unrepresentative for the given concept. If this happens, they are often too few in number. When I say “unrepresentative” I mean that the examples do not sufficiently illustrate the characteristics of the concept. They usually show only either the most common view or are one-sided.

Such a generalization is called hasty generalization.

A simple example is to conclude that “it is always sunny in London” after a few perfect sunny days there. As a tourist, of course ;). While the fallacy of this example is obvious, it is a pattern we follow in our lives without noticing it. How many times did you make general statements about politicians, parties, men, women, kids, your co-workers, countrymen, etc after a single evidence? More times than than you think you did.

There is also a fallacy of sweeping generalization when you generalize from a particular case to either a general case or a broad range, while the evidence you have does not support the general case. For instance, by seeing double decker buses in London you conclude that there are double deckers in all places in the UK. It is clearly a sweeping generalization.

Hasty generalization in life

In life hasty generalization often coincides with sweeping generalization, but not always. They occur especially when we become narrow and fixated on a specific point of view. Notably, it is often a negative point of view. An example of such generalizations are beliefs that “women are bad drivers” or that “I always fail when I attempt something new”.

When you learn a concept or derive a generalization, use as many examples as possible, or as practical. A few examples may serve us well in learning concepts of common objects or abstract ideas. The important point to remember is to refine the once-learned concept when there is such a need.

A need arises when we encounter uncommon or atypical examples still supporting the concept. Also an update of the concept may be necessary when you encounter interesting “negative” examples, which are examples that lie outside of the concept. (See also here.) Otherwise, our concept will either be too narrow or too broad, leading to inaccurate predictions or wrong decisions.

Hasty or sweeping generalizations are often in effect by allowing ourselves for drastic simplifications. These often rely on a few one-sided experiences. Such examples may lead us to a rule, belief or generalization to which we stick for years, without ever questioning. And this has a profound effect on our lives.

For example, having an installed belief that you always fail when attempting something new, there is simply no way to pursue a new carrier even if you feel drawn to. Why? Because you will fail. Obvious, isn’t it?

Examples of hasty generalization

Remember how common it is. A few one-sided examples in life make you often conclude or believe certain things. A few harsh comments on your drawings as a child could have made you believe you were unable to draw at all. A few bad notes from math could have made you believe you were an idiot. A few unsuccessful dates could have made you believe you were unattractive and would never find a partner. For sure, you can name many more here.

This is a step in which we make a rule based on a few unrepresentative examples. The bad part is that once a rule is made , it always applies. Note how this is reflected in our language – by the use of general operators (all, always, never etc) and modal operators (cannot or can). For instance: “I always write bad reports”, ” I am not good at math”, “He never listens to me”, “(All) men are lazy”, etc.

The danger lies in the fact that when a generalization is made it becomes operational for us. We are using it on an automatic pilot. Subconsciously.

To break it, you need to become conscious first. In practice, it means you need to pay attention to the language you use. Then, you need to be open for a new learning and change. Your working generalizations often come from hasty judgements or observations and will show up in the use (or silent use) of general and modal operators.

Be aware that such, often negative, generalizations do not serve you. Expose them by looking at atypical examples or contrary evidence.

So, if you believe you cannot succeed at new endeavors, recall a few situations in which you succeeded in something. For instance, when you went to a school, it was a completely new experience, yet you succeeded in finishing it. When you started driving, it was a new skill to learn, and yet you got your license. Or when you looked for a job in the past you found the one you have right now. Clearly, these examples show you can succeed at new things. Count them in and refine your concept.

Studying successful examples, your circumstances, your determination, your way of working, etc can shed light on the conditions under which you succeed. 

A good question to ask is this: “What do I need (or what does it need to happen) to make me succeed at this new attempt?” Identify the supporting circumstances and needs and take care of them.

Refine your generalization

Please acknowledge the remarkable ability of your mind to generalize from (a few) cases. But … pay attention when this happens by using a few typical or otherwise limited examples only.

Notice.
Pay attention.
Be aware.

Look for uncommon, outlier situations or examples from your life. Take an effort to notice them. If they contradict the examples on which your concept is built, know that the generalization you use is wrong. You need an update. Do it. It is an internal process of thinking, letting the related emotions flow and a mental re-organization of the concept.

Learning points

Generalization is the basic skill of an intelligent mind.  Adore it but do not become its slave.

  • Pay attention to your thinking patterns.
  • Be open to question what you have learned.
  • Be open to refine or even abandon your concepts so that they serve you in the best way possible. The best way is defined by you, but means something along the lines of progress, joy, development, balance or fulfillment.
  • Remain flexible in your learning and allow yourself to update categories.
  • Treat your concepts as “works in progress” and do not get too serious about them. When you are serious you tend to get stiff and fixated on a single point of view.
  • Learn as a child, with awe, amazement, joy and fun.

Find this ability back in yourself! It is there.

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Photo copyright by Moyan Brenn. Photo available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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