MANY of us generalize most of the time, and when we deal with other people, we usually resort to stereotypes. “Aren’t all Latins excitable?” economist Robert L. Heilbroner asks (rhetorically). Aren’t “all Swedes stolid, all Irish hot-tempered? Think about any group of people — mothers-in-law, teenagers, truck drivers, bankers — and a standard picture forms in our head.” We have already pre-judged them before even meeting any of them in person.
This is not necessarily a question of being prejudiced, as Hans Rosling, MD pointed out in his must-read book, “Factfulness.” He says categories “are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts.” At the same time, however, the “necessary and useful instinct to generalize…can also distort our worldview.” It can, for example, “make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different. It can make us assume everything or everyone in one category is similar. And, maybe most unfortunate of all, it can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.”
Now what if most or many people in charge of running things (elected officials) — like most or many people who choose who among them should be in charge (voters) — are gripped by generalizations and are not aware of it?
We, of course, have just described a system of government known as representative democracy (or republic) which is what many democratic nations around the world have adopted. The proverbial blind leading the figuratively blind. What can possibly go wrong?
Wrong generalizations, says Rosling, are mind-blockers for all kinds of understanding. And unfortunately for us, our generalizations, more often than not, are dead wrong.
A few years ago, Variety’s news team interviewed several food-stamp recipients in the local community. What we’ve learned demolished most of our pre-conceived notions about people on food stamps. Statistics, however “accurate” or “up to date,” are no substitute to actually knowing the stories behind those numbers. The food-stamp recipients we interviewed, for example, were not “lazy, unemployed folks milking the system.” They had jobs but had no intention of telling the government about their employment status. To do so would mean the end of their food-stamp and other welfare benefits. That they were hired, usually by a small company, could also indicate that they were reliable employees — otherwise, why would they be hired by an employer who could not count them as “local employees” to comply with the local-hire rule?
False assumptions, in any case, may result in policy proposals or decisions that are not only bad, but harmful as well, especially to their supposed beneficiaries. Not surprisingly, many policy proposals designed to “solve problems” are all well-intentioned but end up causing more or worse problems.
In 1972, Rosling wrote, he was a fourth-year medical student from Sweden studying at the medical school in Bangalore, India. “The first class I attended was on examining kidney X-rays. Looking at the first image, I realized this must be kidney cancer. I decided to wait awhile before telling the class, out of respect. I didn’t want to show off. Several hands then went into the air and the Indian students one by one explained how best to diagnose this cancer, how and where it usually spreads, and how best to treat it. On and on they went for 30 minutes, answering questions I thought only chief physicians knew. I realized my embarrassing mistake. I must have come to the wrong room. These must not be fourth-year students, these must be specialists. I had nothing to add to their analysis. On our way out, I told a fellow student I was supposed to be with the fourth-years. ‘That’s us,’ he said. I was stunned. They had caste marks on their foreheads and lived where exotic palm trees grew. How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I remember this whole experience as the first time in my life that I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”
How can we control our generalization instinct? Travel, if you possibly can, says Rosling. But if you can’t travel, he recommends other ways to avoid using wrong categories:
Always assume your categories are misleading, he says. Look for differences within and similarities across groups.
Beware of “the majority.” Majority, Rosling reminds us, “just means more than half. It could mean 51 percent. It could mean 99 percent. If possible, ask for the percentage.”
Beware of exceptional examples. “Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.”
Assume you are not “normal,” and other people are not “idiots.” “When something looks strange,” Rosling says, “be curious and humble, and think, In what way is this a smart solution?”
Beware of “generalizing from one group to another.”
Country stereotypes, Rosling adds, “simply fall apart when you look at the huge differences within countries and the equally huge similarities between countries on the same income level, independent of culture or religion.”
Rosling says if we saw a picture of how water is heated in, say, China we would probably think, “Oh, that’s how they heat water in China. In an iron pot on a tripod over a fire. That’s their culture.” Nope. “It is a common way to heat water [among people] on [income] Level 2, all over the world.” (At Level 2, people earn between $2 and $8 a day. Almost half or about 3 billion of the world’s population live at this income level. See last week’s Variations.)
Rosling says it’s a question of income. “And in China, as elsewhere, people also cook in several other ways, depending not on their ‘culture’ but on their income level. When someone says that an individual did something because they belong to some group — a nation, a culture, a religion — take care. Are there examples of different behavior in the same group? Or of the same behavior in other groups?”
Generalize at your own risk.
To be continued
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