Logic with Love

How to Detect Your Own Bias and Prejudices–Argument Pitfall #2: Hasty Generalization

This post is one post in a series on thinking well. When we learn to think well, it can help us to live more powerful, clear, and purposeful lives. Thinking well also helps us solve problems and become the boss of ourselves, and so it can help us feel more in control in the best way possible.

One of the most powerful things about thinking well is that it helps us detect problematic thinking patterns–like biases and prejudices–that we possess. Everyone, no matter how thoughtful or smart they are, has some bias or prejudice. Identifying and correcting ours helps us think more clearly, confidently, generously, and openly.

You can find links to the other posts in this series at the bottom of this page.

In the last post in this series, we examined our first argument pitfall: ad hominem

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In this post, we will look at an argument pitfall called Hasty Generalization.

Hasty generalization occurs when someone draws a conclusion about an entire group based on too few examples. A further problem with hasty generalization is that the examples use for the generalization are often poor examples that are not representative of the entire group. This thinking problem can cause us to develop bias and prejudice.

For example, imagine that I shop at a new health food chain store called Veggie Vibes. And let’s say that I experience very poor customer service at the store, and most the workers in the store act very snooty.

Veggie Vibes

If I conclude that all the works in every Veggie Vibes store are snooty because the workers in that particular store were snooty, I am committing the fallacy of hasty generalization because I am drawing a conclusion about an entire group (all of the Veggie Vibes health food stores) based on too few examples (some of the workers in one Veggie Vibes store).

As another example, let’s say that a college freshman name Pete has a roommate named Alex from Florida. Let’s say that one day Pete discovers that Alex stole money from his wallet. Pete is understandably upset, but if he concludes that all Floridians are thieves just because Alex stole money from him, this is a hasty generalization.

As a final example, let’s say that Jennifer is a Democrat, and most of her family is Democrat. Imagine that she gets a new job and meets several very outspoken Republicans that Jennifer thinks are very rude. (And we could just as easily switch the political parties and make Jennifer a Republican who meets a bunch of Democrats she think are very rude.)

If Jennifer generalizes that all Republicans are rude because of these few rude Republicans she meets, she is committing a hasty generalization.

The point is that one or two examples (or often even ten examples) are never sufficiently representative of a entire group, whether that group is a restaurant, people who live in certain state, or anything else.

In order to draw a reasonable conclusion about something, we need to examine a wide variety of instances in order to determine if the conclusions we are making is warranted or whether it is drawn to hastily on a few unusual or anomalous occurrences.

For example, if I wish to draw a conclusion about a person’s character, I need to observe that person’s character over time in many different situations. If I draw a conclusion about the person’s behavior based on one or two instances of her behavior, I am likely making a hasty generalization.[1] For instance, if my friend Jennifer is stressed out several times in one month, it may be that she is high strung and stressed out all the time, or it may be that she is just having a bad month.

As another example: If I wish to make a generalization about a whole group of people—like Democrats or Republicans or Christians or atheists, I need to examine and talk with a wide variety of people in these groups first-hand. I can’t base my generalizations on just a few folks in these groups, and I also cannot base my conclusions on second-hand information about these groups. Doing either of these things can cause me to draw a conclusion before I have clear and reliable evidence to support my conclusion.

Generally speaking, here are a few rules for drawing conclusions that can help you avoid making hasty generalizations:

One: The more definite and thorough a conclusion you wish to draw about a person’s character, the more instances you need to back up your claim.

Two: The more definite and thorough a conclusion you wish to draw about a group of people or a hypothesis, the greater number of instances and examples you should supply to support your point.

Three: You always need to seek out counter-examples that seem to disprove your point. You can be certain that if you don’t identify and address counter-examples proactively, other people will certainly bring them to your attention. Addressing counter-examples strengthens your conclusion, rather than weakening it. Once you identify a counter-example, you may be able to reconcile it to your conclusion, and if so, this strengthens your point. If you are unable to reconcile them to your conclusion, you may need to re-examine and revise your conclusion. If you do this, you are a courageous and brave thinker, and you will eventually end up with a much stronger conclusion.

Thinking Mentor Juggling Examples

Two Examples to Illustrate All of These Points

Learning to avoid hasty generalizations in our thinking helps us to relate better both to ourselves and to other people. To illustrate this, I would like to include two concluding examples of hasty generalization—one that pertains to us as individuals and one that pertains to our political life together.

Example #1: Let’s say that you try something new. Maybe you want to learn to dance, and so you sign up for a dance class—maybe adult ballet class. And let’s say that your first class goes very poorly. Perhaps you struggle greatly to understand the teacher’s directions and to copy the dance moves she shows the class how to do.

After dance class, you go home and collapse on the couch and say to yourself, “I am horrible at ballet. I will never be a good dancer.”

Discouraged Ballerina

While it is understandable that you might feel this way, this is an example of hasty generalization because you are concluding after one ballet class, your very first one, that you are a horrible dancer. One bad class does not provide you with enough evidence to conclude that you are a bad dancer. You would need to attend many more classes and observe how your skill did or did not improve to make such a conclusion. (And by the way, even if you did conclude eventually that you were a bad dancer, you are permitted to be a bad dancer and just dance for the joy of it.)

Once again, your feelings about your first dance class are understandable and permitted. But we should note that while it is good to notice and show compassion to all our painful feelings, we should make decisions based on emotions guided by good logic.

Awareness of emotions + Good Logic + Kindness + Compassion + Respect = Powerful Living

That is why we want to avoid hasty generalization—it is poor logic and a poor guide to your emotions.

Example #2: This is the political example, and I will use an example with both Republicans and Democrats.

Let’s say that you meet a Republican who sneers at all poor people and refers to poor mothers on food stamps as Welfare Queens and leaches on society. If you conclude, based on this example, that all Republicans are heartless, cruel, and arrogant, this would be a hasty example.

As a second example, let’s say you meet a radical Democrat with radical tendencies. She wants to completely abolish all private property, all families (because she believes marriage is legalized slavery), and she wants all children to be raised communally. If you conclude, based on this example, that all democrats are radical, anti-family, and wildly unrealistic and extreme, you would be committing hasty generalization.

There are cruel and arrogant Republicans and there are certainly extreme, anti-family Democrats. However, we cannot draw a conclusion about an entire political party based on one, two, or even a handful of examples.

If you want to think well, about Republicans and Democrats (for instance), you need to look at a wide variety of Republicans and Democrats, and you need to consider counter-examples. For example, can you find any Republicans who are compassionate to the poor or any Democrats who are very pro-family?

Thinking Mentor and CounterExamples

Overcoming Bias and Prejudice

Human beings are cool, but we also have some negative tendencies. One of our negative tendencies is that we tend to pay attention more to information and examples that confirm our own inclinations and preference, and we tend to base our opinions on a handful examples that confirm what we already tend to believe about a matter. And our opinions may be right, but unless we investigate a wide variety of examples and courageously and carefully examine counter-examples, our thinking is often not really thinking but rearranging and deepening our own biases and prejudices.[2]

Biases and prejudices often lead us to do and think things that hurt ourselves and other people. Here are some signs that you might be committing the fallacy of hasty generalization in your thinking about other people in groups.

You often find yourself saying or thinking things like All democrats…., or All Republicans…, or All the Radical Left…, or All Libertarians…

You often find yourself talking about people, rather than talking to them. For instance, you might find that you talk a lot about groups such as Democrats, Republicans, atheists, Christians, LTBQ folks, immigrants, Evangelicals, feminists, or libertarians rather than talking to these people.

You find that your spend a lot of your life trying to figure out who and what to be “Against”.*

You think entire groups of people are problems or enemies or beyond hope.

You think or feel quite a bit, “It’s us against them”.

If you see yourself in any of the above statements, there is no shame. It’s easy to fall into the above thinking patterns. But please note, most of the patterns above require you to make strong generalizations about entire groups of people, most of which you have probably never met or to whom you have never spoken. That is a good sign that you are falling into the pitfall of committing hasty generalization, which all of us do from time to time.

Conclusion

Of course, you must construct generalizations about yourself, people, and life. We can’t act without forming opinions about the world, and we must construct generalizations at least some of the time to form opinions.

But please, for your own sake and for others, construct generalizations after you have thought about a wide variety of examples carefully and interacted first-hand with the people or things about which you are generalizing. Or at the very least, be willing to revisit and revise your opinions (if need be) when you run into counter-examples.

Think Well, Friend.

This is your brain #2

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Here is the first part in the series:

What Does It Mean to Think Well, and Why Is It Hard Sometimes?

[1] There are exceptions to this rule, of course. If I see someone violently beat another person, this behavior is so extreme and egregiously wrong that unless the person is acting in self-defense, the person’s actions likely demonstrate serious and repeated moral failing on the person’s part.

[2] There is an old saying that goes, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” This quote (which has been attributed to a variety of people like William James, Edward R. Murrow, and Bishop Oldham) highlights well how we often fail to engage in careful thinking. Be careful about the number and kinds of examples we base generalizations on is one way we practice more careful thinking.

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