We make generalizations because they can sometimes depict, on average, something that is usually true. Others call this pattern recognition: a vital skill. But don’t let it turn you into a mind reader. Because you’re not.
And yet people think that they are! They think that they know you better than you know yourself! On line, or real life, so many act and believe as though they’re the second coming of Professor X.
Even worse, people think that generalizations mean you are talking about everyone. It all goes back to the comprehension gap between what words actually mean and what people think they mean. Is it due to the deplorable state of American education? A mass hysteria induced by political demagogues whipping people up into frenzies? Arrogance and ignorance walking hand-in-hand?
Probably a combination of all three, and more. But whatever the reasons, false mind reading is a cognitive trap that it’s important to be aware of so that you do not fall prey to it.
All generalizations, including this one, are either false or dangerous, depending on if you follow Mark Twain’s or Alexandre Dumas’ formulation. But regardless, they are telling you, based on observable patterns, that something is usually something on average, or in the aggregate.
Now, we see how this can lead to some rather distasteful stereotypes based on things like ethnicity, religion, national origin, and so on: All X are good at Y, or bad at Z. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Given America’s increasingly violent political climate, I’m focusing more on the realm of disagreement: “All Republicans are evil racist Nazis.” “All Democrats are America-hating communists.” “All Libertarians are unserious, weed-smoking open-border advocates with no real ideas.”
Okay, that last one might be true. But I digress.
Whatever the case, generalizations can lead to a lot of vitriol. Check out the political violence in Berkeley that happened over the weekend if you don’t believe me when I say that generalizations are turning people into mind readers.
What do I mean by mind readers? It’s this: If you believe that “All X are Y,” and you meet one X who is not Y, that disproves your generalization.
This is why a good, effective generalization speaks in terms of averages and not absolutes.
Anyway, if one encounters the exception to their absolute generalization, what do they do? Do they reevaluate their position based on new information, perhaps tweak their mental model, and come to a greater understanding of the world and their fellow citizens?