by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3006

Today, we generalize. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Is generalization good or bad? Letís explore.

Generalization is the act of taking specific examples and making broader inferences. When I see water bubbling on a stove, I assume itís hot. Thatís because every time Iíve encountered this situation before the water was, in fact, hot. The value of this generalization is pretty clear: it keeps me from constantly burning my hand.

Spahgetti cooking in boiling water. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Eloquence

Most of what we learn as young children results from generalization. We learn what a dog is by seeing many dogs. We learn hugs are acceptable but hitting isnít. Generalization allows us to deal with situations weíve never encountered before. When I greet someone Iíve never met, I know itís appropriate to shake hands.

But generalization does more than simply allow us to cope with our daily lives. Itís led us to a profound understanding of our world. Drop a rock and it wonít float into the sky. And we didnít learn this because we read it on a set of instructions that came with the universe.

Weíve learned to quantify our generalizations. Do more than half of the homes in the U.S. have three or more televisions? We donít have to ask every household. We can ask only a tiny proportion and generalize to the entire country. And we can do so with great certainty thanks to math, which itself is generalized from abstract symbols on a page to real world situations.

Graph depicting the formula for standard deviation. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Nusha

Any way you look at it, generalization is one of the most powerful weapons in the human arsenal. But as we know all too well, itís a two-edged sword.

Where we get into trouble is making generalizations that simply arenít true. Sometimes our transgressions are easily forgiven. ďEveryone loves going to Aunt MyrtleísĒ you proclaim while making vacation plans, when if you really thought about it youíd realize the kids would much rather go to the beach.

Other generalizations have more far reaching consequences. ďRich people donít care about the poor.Ē ďPoor people are lazy.Ē The fact is many wealthy people give their time and money to support the poor, while many poor people work endless hours trying to stay afloat. Psychologists tell us we make these generalizations to simplify our lives; to do away with the many nuances that complicate decision-making. Unfortunately, itís often to the peril of those around us.

But we neednít be held hostage to generalization. Counterbalancing our ability to generalize is another powerful human capacity: our ability to reason. Reason allows us to look at the details of a particular situation and determine whatís true, or at least to make our best reasoned determination. Generalization is a very useful capability — just as long as it doesnít get in the way of the facts.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So is generalization good or bad? Fact is, it can be both. One can argue itís humankindís greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a related episodes, see SPECIFICS AND GENERALITIES

More than Half the Homes in U.S. Have Three or more TVs. From the Nielsen website: Accessed May 6, 2015.

What is Generalization? From the Explorable website: Accessed May 6, 2015.

This episode was first aired on May 14, 2015