We use our experience and knowledge to understand what is unknown or inaccessible to us. We are attracted to patterns and judge the world in terms of what is already familiar to us. However, out of a desire to understand some things quickly, we often draw conclusions which lack sufficient evidence. Thus, we fall into the trap of the hasty generalisation.
Excessive and improper generalisation is flawed, and the history of logic records it as sophistry: a logical error that consists in drawing hasty conclusions without sufficient evidence. For example, if X is true for A, X is true for B, and X is true for C, this means that X is true for D, and E, and so on. The names for this sophism vary: over-generalisation, logical error of insufficient example, logical error of the singular case, jumping to conclusions, among others.
Generalisation is a thought process (along with particularisation, comparison, analysis and synthesis, abstraction and concretisation) which applies understanding of the particular to the general. Through generalisation, we understand new and inaccessible things, going beyond the framework of direct and immediate knowledge: we move from individuals to classes, and from individuals to categories.
Why do we make generalisations?
As with other sophisms, we make excessive generalisations because we prefer to use shortcuts in our thinking. If the new tenant in my block happens to have parked his car badly once or twice, I might, in horror, assume that he will always do so. If a person newly hired by a director happens to make a mistake, some might say, “She’s incompetent, she’ll always do that, she’s not the right person” and so on. Starting from a singular case, one generalises and arrives at ”always”. Generalisation is not a faulty tool in itself, but its inappropriate use not only fails to serve correct thinking, but shows cognitive limitations, and leads to conclusions that are inconsistent with reality.
When it comes to people, we generalise because we don’t give them enough credit and label them without knowing much about them: “I know him, I’ve seen him as he is or what he can do.” We might be right, but we might also be very wrong.
The human being is subject to complex transformations throughout life, and education is a key factor. Those who assume this process are able to progress, and can give up bad habits in favour of good ones.
Author Stephen Lucas, in his book The Art of Public Speaking, provides a perfect example of a hasty generalisation: “Throughout U.S. history, military leaders have always been excellent presidents—for example, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower.” The more logical statement would have been: “Throughout U.S. history, military leaders have sometimes proved to be excellent presidents—for example, George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower.”
Pronouns and adverbs, the favourite tools of generalisation
We often find ourselves making statements such as, “You never listen to me!” “All priests and pastors are corrupt,” “Only bad things happen to me,” “Bad things always happen to me,” “Anyone would do that,” or “No one would refuse such an offer.” When we use these words—all, anyone, no one, never, always—we fall into the hasty generalisation trap.
In reality, the person who accuses others of “never listening” to her has certainly been listened to many times, but she has a rather emotional reaction to instances of not being listened to, loaded with frustration, and thus extrapolates others’ attitudes into a general principle or rule.
In the second example, if some clergy are corrupt, this does not mean that all clergy are corrupt (research should be done to prove this). As for the unfortunate things in the third example, no man has nothing but evil in life (Job may have thought so, for a certain period of time, but he is a special case). This statement that some people make, shows their view of their own life, rather than reality. From some unfortunate situations that have occurred throughout their lives, people arrive at the conclusion as a settled fact: “Only bad things happen to me. Always.” All these statements are a sign of poor thinking, and have repercussions on the level of fulfillment they feel in life, as well as on the quality of the decisions they make.
How do we avoid the trap of hasty generalisation?
- Simply try to better understand each fact, action, and event (the context of its occurrence and contributing factors).
- Judge carefully, objectively, and without emotion, as many aspects of a situation as possible.
- Pay attention to the use of generalised words (all, anyone, no one, never, always, etc.)
- Avoid easy labels and believing that there is no possibility of change in any way.
- Have a reserved and patient attitude towards what escapes your knowledge and understanding—as is bound to happen at some point.
- Understand that people are constantly changing, and that “God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:20).