Free Press Journal

‘Generalising’, the necessary evil!


Labels are easier to handle – than large amounts of complex information, writes Dr Shrirang Bhakle

Three persons are traveling in a car in a different state. They see a black cow. First person says, “All cows in this state are black.” The second one says, “All we can say is that there is at least one black cow in this state.” The third person says, “The only conclusion we can draw is that there is at least one cow in this state whose one side is black!” It is so easy to laugh at the firstperson. But so many times, we tend to draw conclusions like him.

Consider elections – our favourite pastime! “This leader is great.” “That leader is a crook.” “That one is a fool” Our generalisations come freely and fast! And after we have concluded, we pick up the media titbits that agree with our conclusions – while ignoring the titbits that are opposite to our conclusions. And so our conclusions – that are gross generalisations – continue happily.

Most of us recognise the fallacy of quick and gross generalisations. Yet we continue to do it all the time. We generalise about people, situations, predictions and even about our lives. Our generalisations help us to process information fast but many a times they result in disastrous consequences. So it is important to understand this thing called generalising that is so much a part of daily life.

The main result of generalising is that it produces labels. “That person is unreliable. Don’t ask her/him to do important work.” “That person is an egotist.”  “S/he is stupid.” And so on. How do we come to such conclusions? We come in contact with some people for a short time – few hours or even a few minutes. And yet that is enough for us to draw conclusions about that person. Sometimes we do not even meet a person (e.g. political leaders or other famous people).

And yet we put labels. Is this type of generalisation correct or wrong? We have to deal with people all the time. So it becomes very important to draw some conclusions about persons – in order to decide how we are going to behave with them. So even if we do not have enough information about the person, we need to derive conclusions quickly. So, fast generalisations about people become essential.

Generalisation or labelling becomes very important when we have to select and appoint a person – as an employee or an MLA or – even as the son or daughter-in-law! Labels are easier to handle – than large amounts of complex information. Suppose you want to employ a maid. You come to know that earlier she was previously employed by a friend. So, naturally you ask that person how she is. Now, what kind of an answer would you like a quick generalisation or a balanced, detailed analysis of her personality?

Suppose the friend says, “She is okay as far as the work is concerned. She works quite hard – provided she comes to work regularly. She has a habit of taking leave suddenly. She is quite honest but is quite talkative. She will keep talking with us and even other maids. One day, what happened was…” Etc. etc. etc. Your friend can go on talking and give you so much information that you get confused. Finally, in exasperation, you ask, “Is she suitable to be employed with us?” And the friend might say, “No, she is not a good maid.” Now, that is a sweeping generalisation or labelling – but it is useful for you! While you are aware that it is not a precise description of the maid’s complex personality, it is easier to handle.

One peculiar feature of our ‘liberal’ times is to call someone ‘judgmental’. Suppose you are talking about some celebrity. And you say, “She is crazy! She did such and such thing!” If there is a liberal person in the group, s/he will immediately call you judgmental or having labelling attitude. The funny part of it is that the moment that liberal person calls you judgmental (or labelling), s/he herself/himself is being judgmental about you – by putting a label on you!

We keep making generalisations about different situations or future or about our life, too. Suppose you ask your son about the speech he gave in his school. He says, “It was a fiasco. I mispronounced the name of our chief guest.” Now, this ‘fiasco’ is a gross generalisation that is quite wrong because according to his teachers, he spoke very well – apart from the small error.

When we become emotional, we tend to do quick generalisations that are likely to be wrong. When emotional, people tend to make sweeping generalisations about future and life. For example, a break up can make a teenager conclude that life is not worth living, and that the entire future is going to be unhappy. Such sweeping generalisations make some people attempt suicide.

On the other hand, a major achievement can make a person believe that s/he can indeed have a great future – leading that person to work hard and really achieve it! So, generalisations are here to stay. But we need to be aware of the shortcomings.