Marx is quoted as saying, “I used to think that all lawyers were crooks. Then I met one who was a liar.” The quote is funny because it takes a common stereotype and turns it on its head. But more importantly, it illustrates why it’s absurd to overgeneralize about people or situations.
All generalizations are false, including this one. Mark Twain.
Sometime in the last century, as a population, we collectively agreed that gross stereotyping hasn’t served us well. That predicting behaviors based on someone’s race, gender, economic circumstances etc. can land us in trouble, not just because it is politically incorrect to do so, but also because it never works. Girls can be great at math. Not all rich people are heartless. And, despite my South Asian heritage, I’m not a terrible driver.
But there’s one area that is still a holdout for typecasting. For reasons unknown, we still characterize large populations simply based on when they were born.
The Generation Myth
Bobby Duffy, social researcher, and Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, wrote a book released in 2021 titled The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think. Here’s a link to his TedX talk on the subject. Duffy argues that scientific scrutiny does not support the theory of generational typecasting.
As writer Julieanne Smolinski pointed out via a Twitter feed, all Baby boomers didn’t linoleum their hardwood floors, nor are all Millenials avocado-loving narcissists who live with their parents because they can’t afford to buy their own homes.
We humans are complex and extraordinarily nuanced beings and therefore, any reductionist theories of our actions and behaviors based on broad generalizations, including those which rely on the generation someone belongs to, is an exercise in futility.
Yet we do it. All the time. We like to paint with broad brush strokes and at times take it too far. We overgeneralize. Not just on socio-economic or political issues either, but in our personal everyday lives as well. Here’s an example.
Upping the Ante
A couple of days ago, after dutifully completing my household chores, I locked myself up in a room trying to write this very article. Like clockwork, it took less than five minutes for my mind to wander—a sort of deadline-induced need for distraction. That’s when I realized I’d left a bowl of food on the counter that needed to go in the fridge. But unwilling to procrastinate on my writing any further, I texted my husband in the next room to move the bowl to the fridge. He assured me he’d take care of it in “10 minutes.”
Satisfied with my delegation skills, and proud of myself for staying committed to work, I rewarded my quick thinking and self-discipline by scrolling on my phone as another hour whooshed by.
When I eventually went down, sure enough, I found the bowl still very much where I had left it—on the counter—with my husband hovering, obliviously, less than five feet away. I couldn’t resist: “See?” I said, as I made a big show of opening up the fridge and sliding the bowl in, adding, “This isn’t so hard, is it?” And then, to borrow a phrase I love from writer Jenny Anderson (author of Spousonomics), I quickly “upped the ante from specific misdemeanor to global offenses.”
I unleashed a litany of complaints starting with “You never pay attention.” And then lectured him on how he should listen more, maybe stop watching “so much TV”, and for good measure I suggested he enroll in a mindfulness seminar. Next minute I got back to specifics again. “When was he going to fix the broken garage remote?”
I’m not proud of my tirade, plus I don’t think it worked, or for that matter, he even heard it! But that’s a topic for another day. The point is, I had done the very thing I’m advocating we should all do less of: Overgeneralize. I took one errant action and blew it out into a whole narrative. I had effectively turned a pencil line into a concrete wall.
Generalization is the wonderful ability we all have to fill in the blanks to create complete stories, when needed, or remove unnecessary data points to come to logical conclusions. It isn’t a bad thing in itself. Without it, we probably wouldn’t exist. Our ability to generalize is a skill of paramount importance, perhaps one that helped us most to evolve and thrive as a species.
Without generalization and pattern-matching skills, we may not even recognize our own family and friends, because their faces would look completely different from different angles. Or we would totally fail in Math (more so than we do today) because we’d only know to add specific numbers instead of learning addition as a concept that allows us to add ANY numbers.
But like with most things in life, it’s possible to take a good thing too far and ruin it.
Overgeneralization occurs when our brains extend generalized conclusions too far, applying them to situations that may not warrant such broad assumptions. This cognitive bias can lead to distorted perceptions, inaccuracies, and stereotypes. While generalization helps us navigate the complexities of life, overgeneralization oversimplifies those complexities and paints an incomplete picture.
Why do we overgeneralize?
I’m sure I’m in good company, but most of us have a tendency to extrapolate a few isolated incidents into whole character traits.
Someone shows up late to work a few times, and we are quick to label them lazy (yes, just in our minds, shhhh…).
A friend takes fifteen minutes to respond to your text, and you’ve convinced yourself it’s because she hates you and suddenly you see signs everywhere for why that is the case.
Or you have a couple of weeks of sleepless nights with an infant, and you jump to the conclusion that mothers can never have professional careers.
So, why do we overgeneralize?
Mainly because We. Love. Shortcuts. Our brains like efficiency and rapid decision-making. Why trouble your brain with new facts when you can always rely on preconceived notions?
Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts. E. B. White.
How to not turn a pencil line into a concrete wall
If it isn’t obvious already, overgeneralization can be a big problem. It can foster harmful stereotypes, and perpetuate biases, lead to poor and inaccurate decision-making, and hinder our personal and professional growth.
So how do we stop overgeneralizing?
I wasn’t too far off the mark when I ranted about the mindfulness course earlier. The first step to solving a problem is knowing there’s one. Mindfulness can help us be self-aware to recognize overgeneralization.
Also, engaging with diverse opinions and backgrounds, and embracing uncertainty by not neatly categorizing all people and situations into preconceived ideas and boxes, can help open our minds to nuances and differences. Travel is a great way to do this.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. Mark Twain.
Lastly, getting into the habit of questioning our assumptions, especially when we make important decisions, can be very helpful.
As any photographer knows, camera lenses use contrast areas to help focus on a subject. Out-of-focus images are usually the result of subject areas that are too smooth and lack contrast. Similarly, when we overgeneralize and paint with broad brush strokes, we tend to lose focus. We can learn to stay on target by staying close and focused on our subjects, but more importantly, we are sharpest at reading people and situations when we learn to appreciate their contrasts.
“If you generalize about everyone, you’ll be wrong about everyone.” - George Carlin