Everyone generalizes too much

We cannot avoid generalizing, but we sometimes get it wrong (and even if we get it right, we may be making a faux pas)

Koen Smets
7 min readNov 24, 2023

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One of our superpowers is that we can make assumptions about something or someone we have never encountered before. Based on certain observed, or known, characteristics, we expect other characteristics to be present too. We almost literally fill in the blanks, by generalizing the co-existence of two different traits: if we see X, and we have seen before X in conjunction with Y, then Y will be there too. We do not, however, apply this only when it is correct to do so. And sometimes, even if our generalization is justified, we might find ourselves in trouble.

Generalization makes it easy

Our brain is a powerful instrument, but it has its limits. If it had to interpret the constant stream of input from just our eyes (each eye has the equivalent of 130 megapixels) it would probably promptly overheat. What it does instead is guess wat our eyes might be seeing (it will almost always be pretty much the same as what we were seeing a few hundredths of a second ago), and only concern itself with what is different. Something similar appears to take place at a much higher cognitive level. If we see a house that we have never seen before, we will assume that it will consist of rooms with floors, walls, ceilings, doors and windows; if it has several floors, there will be stairs connecting them, there will be sitting rooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and so on. We’ve never seen the house before, yet we ‘know’ all this. We generalize from the houses we have seen before.

Of course, we make assumptions in the process, which may not be true. Perhaps, the ‘house’ we see is on a filmset — with no rooms or walls behind the façade. Maybe it has been converted in an office, a music studio, a restaurant or an art cinema, and so lacks one or more of the characteristics that we had expected, assuming it was a home to people. But most of the time, our assumptions hold.

“All cars have one steering wheel at the… oops — I am overgeneralizing” (photo: oldbug.com)

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius