The Problem with Sweeping Generalizations

Some months ago I read a book assembled by Edge in which the best thinkers of our time were asked to offer a single principle of thought that is vital to clear thinking but often absent in our cognitive toolkits.

One tendency I do not remember seeing in those pages but that I believe belongs near the top of the list is unproductively broad generalization. Sweeping generalizations often get in the way of problem-solving, because clinging to superficial views obscures the underlying structure of the problem. Oversimplification may make us feel superior to the unenlightened, but generalization without nuance mainly truncates learning and understanding by closing questions prematurely at the point of wrong answers.

Here are some generalizations I hear remarkably frequently in discourse. You will notice that they tend to diagnose a fundamental inadequacy in someone, or some system, and effectively to assign blame to that other, denying the complexity of the underlying issue or a share of responsibility:

  • Women make better CEOs than men
  • Our society cares only about material things
  • Our society devalues art and culture
  • Our schools stifle creativity
  • Politicians are corrupt
  • Government is the cause of our problems
  • The free market is the cause of our problems
  • I’m a people person, not a numbers person
  • Atheists just don’t want to worry about morality
  • Today’s youth are [a positive or negative description] relative to their elders
  • People hate change (as in, “Why do people hate change?”)

Granted, we all need ways of categorizing people and things so that we can use our experiences to learn, to make predictions, and to make decisions. The problem is that too many of us live by, and think by, such broad prejudices without an effort to understand our world beyond the superficial. Our thinking, our communications, and our actions are the poorer for this widespread lazy habit of mind.


About reflectionsandrotations

I'm an educator and coach with a special interest in fostering creative thinking, designing effective learning environments, and building communities of learners
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