Why Do We Generalise?
The hasty generalisation fallacy.
The irony of this isn’t lost on me.
I, too, have suffered this fate. As a matter of fact, I’m doing it right now — by assuming you’re a generalist. But here’s some context:
I came across this movie the other day where a friend complained to another about something someone had done. In an attempt to console, the other had said, “that’s how *insert super-specific and overgeneralised demographic* behave”.
With the sample size of a whopping 2 people? At best, 20?
So, I thought to myself…
Why do we generalise?
First off, the hasty generalisation bias is a logical fallacy. This means that it’s untrue because it’s not real statistics which show where the majority lie so we can work with that information. In fact, this is quite the opposite.
In this situation, we have an inadequate sample size that isn’t a true reflection of the population in question. And that’s what makes it so hasty.
But to our brain, that doesn’t really matter because the brain will attempt to fill any missing gaps. This is a significant reason for many of the cognitive biases we experience. It’s also why optical illusions happen. We want to make sense of the world, so we tell stories about what we (can’t) see.
“To trust someone, our brain creates a model. When we meet someone for the first time, we subconsciously start to think — what is this person likely to do, should I trust you, do you trust me?” — Excerpt from Why Do We Lose Trust
The moment we shake someone’s hand, our brain tries to make a snap judgement based on our collected data.
“She seems introverted. Didn’t I meet one introvert three weeks ago who was so boring? All introverts must be boring.”
And so we assume, generalise but sometimes, unfortunately, dismiss.
But isn’t this a time-saver, especially in the face of danger (perceived or real)? We can’t blame our brain as it goes into defence mode.
This is safe. Especially if the said experience with that ‘group’ (once or thrice) happened to us ourselves. Once bitten, twice shy — however that saying goes.
So if this is helpful, why is it a fallacy?
A better alternative?
Perhaps the danger comes when we refuse to do the mental work of being objective or getting to know someone. When we give in to stereotypes and group-think and, at its worst, tribalism/racism.
The point isn’t to let down our guard and entirely dismiss what we might have heard or learnt about specific types of people.
The point is to offer a sliver of the benefit of a doubt to each individual, as trust grows to be earned, without entirely dismissing a person based on their tribe (for example). To consider the real facts and research-based statistics done. To make objective assessments of each person we want to form any form of relationship with but without ignoring unbiased intuition.
And that is way more difficult than it reads.
🔌 Recommendation of the month
Perhaps a not-too-hasty generalisation of its own, I found this quiz fun. Using a colourful illustration, it attempts to test your range of thinking to reveal—do you think in absolute black-and-white, or can you find the greys in-between?