Avoiding Generalizations – A Perspective on Perceptions

We seem to be in a time where it’s easier to see how people are quick to make generalizations or stereotype people. Maybe the influence of social media or combinations of other social constructs makes it easier to make generalizations about people without knowing anything about them. We often find ourselves making a generalization about people or things we don’t understand because of limited experience with what we’re presented.

Foundations of generalizations

The generalizations I’m talking about are the very broad and superficial observations or comments regarding whole groups of people or actions.

Sometimes they are usually based on a common characteristic (e.g. tall people would play professional basketball), which has been observed by many and might at least have a small sign of credibility.

Though we should always remember that these assumptions are based on our limited information and there are exceptions.

We could use generalizations because it’s easier to make broad statements without having to really think about what we’re trying to address. We live with generalizations that help guide us through life (e.g. dark clouds could mean storms) yet these generalizations do have few exceptions.

As long as we can remember that we are making these evaluations on limited information, that there are exceptions, and remember to look for them before we use generalization, we can save a lot of time and effort by preventing the wrong assumptions.

That’s how generalizations can work for us yet we need to remember that generalizations can be dangerous, even this one.

Generalizations and human nature

All of us generalize our experiences, which is in itself is a generalization.

These generalizations help us try to understand the world. We have a bias to make and use generalizations frequently by how we link our memories with our past experience.

Our memories and past experiences help us shape opinions and allow us to make quick judgments on new experiences.

The more interactions or experiences we have with something, the greater our ability to make judgments and decrease generalizations about them.

Biased by our experiences or interpretations of experiences, and making wrong generalizations can be dangerous and hurtful to others (e.g. assuming personality traits based on ethnicity).

We tend to apply generalizations about people so that we know (or think to know) how to interact with them. If we see someone in law enforcement clothing we assume they are in law enforcement. If we see someone who looks over the retirement age and they are out during work hours, we assume they are retired.

We use generalizations subconsciously to identify people and possible threats, we see someone mumbling to themselves and we wonder, are they on a blue tooth device talking on the phone or are they talking to themselves.

This is how generalizations work for and against us. We can make assumptions about people we don’t know based on a personal bias and this changes our interaction with them and our environment.

What we do with this type of generalizations is where things can become dangerous. There are many generalizations about groups of people, whether by country, ethnicity, race, creed, or even hair color.

We also should try to remember that generalizations are often quite specific to a culture or a region. What may seem obvious to us may be a complete mystery to someone from somewhere else.

Generalizing to stereotyping

Generalizations, when expanded into something even more general, are stereotypes. Like generalizations, stereotypes are assumptions (mostly unfounded) we have about people based on observed characteristics.

We tend to use stereotyping based on the caricatures we create for a group of people.

When we do this, we see people based on what we assume about particular categories of identity and other characteristics associated with those categories. We’ve seen this in U.S. history through immigration, people whether from Ireland, Italy, or Central America viewed through a lense of stereotyping.

These stereotypes are a gap or lack in understanding. We stereotype those we do not understand or about those we have no or limited knowledge. Views become challenged or reinforced as we move through life and have more experiences.

We can see one person who seems to fit the stereotype then it reinforces our ideas about that group of people. We do this while we tend to ignore others in that same group who do not fit that stereotype, as well as others in different groups that do fit that stereotype.

This may happen because it’s easier for us to think we are always right in our positions rather than challenge our assumptions and admit we might be wrong.

We usually assume, because we don’t experience many people like them, that they are all strangers and that they are the “them” to our “us”.

Final thoughts

I think generalizations depend on context. When made about people or cultures they can not only be bad but dangerous.

In social situations, we need to remember that everyone is an individual. To not make quick judgments without knowing what they are about.

Leave it to them they to either prove the generalization true or prove themselves to be the exception. If we start from the position of the generalization, we risk allowing the generalization to become dangerous.

The important thing is to know when we’re using generalizations. To know how these generalizations provide a framework our own lack of information or quick judgments.