General Question

JeSuisRickSpringfield's avatar

Why do people have so much trouble with generalities?

Asked by JeSuisRickSpringfield (4442points) May 27th, 2012

I’ve noticed this for a long time, but it seems to be cropping up a lot lately. Consider the statement “books are heavier than insects.” The proper way to interpret this statement is as saying something like “in general, books are heavier than insects” or “the typical book is heavier than the typical insect.” Lately, however, I’ve noticed many people (on Fluther and elsewhere) insisting that the statement should be understood as saying “the heaviest insect is lighter than the lightest book” or “the lightest book is heavier than the heaviest insect” (these being the same in their consequences). Is this just the newest fad in sophistry, or do people really not understand generalized statements anymore?

I fully expect that someone will click on the question with the intention of saying “not everyone has trouble with generalities” before realizing that the title is an example of the exact thing about which I’m asking.

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45 Answers

nikipedia's avatar

I think the difference is a matter of scale. In your example, you’re right, nearly every book is heavier than nearly every insect. So let’s (for the sake of argument, not accuracy) quantify the statement as true 99% of the time.

But in matters of human behavior, everything is so much more variable. So the statements people make—e.g., “Girls are mean” (fictional example)—are almost never even close to 99% true. Maybe 10%, if you’re lucky.

Also, your example is a statement of fact. If we stick with my fictional example, girls being mean isn’t necessarily a statement of fact so much as an opinion, or something that’s context-dependent. What’s mean to one person might be totally appropriate to another; heaviness, on the other hand, is not up for debate.

Last, I think this negativity toward generalization is a reaction to people trying to generalize about all/most humans based on one’s own very limited personal experiences. Doing so is often not very accurate. If you can support your generalization with research studies or data rather than personal anecdotes, I’ll be much more likely to get on board with it.

Jeruba's avatar

One consideration might be that some people make ignorant generalizations (for example, “Blondes are dumb,” “Lawyers are crooks”) that they actually believe. It’s not always easy to tell when a person intends the remark literally and when he* is assuming that you will assume he knows better.

When I can’t read a person’s mind (and I rarely can), I tend to think he means what he says, rather than assuming that he expects me to know he doesn’t.

If a person makes what sounds like an unqualified universal statement, which of us is responsible for making sure it’s understood as a loose generalization rather than a globally applicable assertion, the speaker or the listener?

*he or she

CWOTUS's avatar

Generalizations are always cool. I never have a problem with them. But do you have any statistics on the insect / book thing?

Jaxk's avatar

There are few absolutes in life. I’ve been down the road you’re talking about and people want everything to be an absolute. If you say generally men are taller than women, Bang, you get criticism from every angle. I think it’s more that people want to find a flaw in your assertion so they pick it to death.

Coloma's avatar

@JeSuisRickSpringfield Then shouldn’t you have phrased your question….
Why do SOME people have so much trouble with generalities? lol

laurenkem's avatar

@Coloma Point taken, point scored. Alas, none of us are immune to generalizations – even the op.

wallabies's avatar

If what you say isn’t entirely true, then you open the door for criticism. People aren’t mind readers.

cheebdragon's avatar

People are stupid, “in general.”

ETpro's avatar

@JeSuisRickSpringfield Damn, your last sentence in the question details stole my thunder. Of couprse, people not being good readers, it didn’t intefere with @Coloma & @laurenkem thundering away. And before you guys start, I’m doing the same thing that @JeSuisRickSpringfield did in the aforementioned last sentence—providing an example of inaccurate generalization.

I do think the tendency to paint with too broad a brush causes many of our disagreements today. It would be wonderful if rationality could be taught as a subject in secondary school

Nullo's avatar

A lot of people simply want to nitpick.

Philosophile's avatar

Because generalizing is lazy thinking. Instead of considering individual cases, the speaker simply paints them with the same brush, and that can be dangerous.

Jeruba's avatar

@Nullo, if someone posted the remark “Conservatives are idiots,” would you consider yourself a nitpicker if you challenged that statement?

Nullo's avatar

@Jeruba I think that you’re generalizing. Your turnabout neglects that I cushioned my statement with “A lot of.” I will grant the possibility that some Conservatives are idiots on the basis that there are idiots across the board, not on the basis of their conservatism.

Trillian's avatar

Lots of generalizing happens on this site, and at best it is incorrect.

Jeruba's avatar

@Nullo, I didn’t make any general statement. Rather, I asked a specific question about your personal response to a generalization. (I am not making such an assertion about conservatives myself, because I know it wouldn’t be true. The content isn’t important except insofar as I am guessing it’s one you’d react to.) I’m just looking for your idea of a nitpicking response to a generalization.

I happen to think that pretty much any unqualified generalization about people is irresponsible to a greater or lesser degree because it fosters stereotyping and encourages kneejerk reactions to groups of people regardless of individual cases. Generalizations about impersonal objects don’t matter quite so much (who’d be hurt by a remark such as “Balloons are fun”?), but they can still be troublesome. I don’t regard calling for appropriate qualifiers as nitpicking, and so I’m wondering what you’d say when it’s a generalization that touches you.

Blackberry's avatar

@Trillian Generalizing happens everywhere, but we should always keep each other in check as fellow humans : )

cheebdragon's avatar

Just out of curiosity, is it a generalization, if it’s true?

lillycoyote's avatar

Who knows? Perhaps your question, this question, is the “newest fad in sophistry.” I don’t know, I don’t really keep up with that sort of thing

ETpro's avatar

@cheebdragon I’m going to say no. But most generalizations aren’t true, and therein lies the problem. And if that’s a generalization it’s still true, and therefore the exception proves the rule. :-)

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augustlan's avatar

Like others have said, it seems to me that generalizations about people/human behavior are the ones that some people react negatively to. At a guess, I’d say it’s a reaction to the fact that such generalizations were often taken as the truth in the past. Today, we are generally more sophisticated about such things, more knowledgeable, and more sensitive.

Keep_on_running's avatar

We don’t talk in 1’s and 0’s, and unless you monitor each and every word you speak, say and write; you will generalise. Some people try to correct this and others don’t. Some try harder than others. A lazy person makes more generalisations than a proactive person…(see what I did there? Ahh, it’s just so hard…)

Blackberry's avatar

@cheebdragon I’m pretty sure there’s no generalization that is true. This would require you to be aware of every person or thing on the planet you were making the generalization about. Even if there’s one exception out of a billion.

Trillian's avatar

Bullshit. There’s no need to generalize, and no special training is needed to avoid it. ”All Christians don’t act or think like the Westboro Baptist Church, all republicans_ aren’t just stupid, most divorces aren’t “caused” by women. Most lizard based alien life forms do not blindly hate everything for no better reason than lack of ever having read anything other than manga. So, really. No need to generalize people.

Coloma's avatar

I just read the fine print of the addendum at the bottom of @JeSuisRickSpringfield ‘s Q.
Soooo, my point was pointless. Retraction. lol

Supacase's avatar

@Blackberry what about a generalization along the lines of “child molestation is never a good thing”?

But now that I think about it, that brings up another point – the validity of the generalization depends on how the individual interprets it. Some child molesters no doubt do think it is a good thing.

Maybe something lie “fire is hot”?

fredTOG's avatar

Bears shit in the woods,generally.

Blackberry's avatar

@Supacase Oh, maybe you did find one, lol.

Jeruba's avatar

A definition is not what we mean by a generalization.

A tautology is not what we mean by a generalization.

JeSuisRickSpringfield's avatar

@Jeruba To answer your question, it is the responsibility of all parties to a conversation to make sure what is said is understood. The speaker bears the responsibility to say things that a reasonable person could understand, and the listener bears the responsibility of making a good faith effort to understand what is said. A universal generalization and a restricted generalization may carry the same syntax without any grammatical error being committed. It is for the listener to ask which makes more sense in the context, or to ask if unable to make a determination. Putting everything on the speaker is futile. Plenty of linguistic conventions require the listener to do some work, and a listener freed of conversational responsibilities would be at liberty to reject statements at a whim by refusing to understand them. Communications is a two-way street, but the phenomenon to which I am drawing attention is one that arises when the listener is being uncooperative.

@cheebdragon Yes, I think some generalizations can be true (or false) even if they are generalizations. The conditions for their truth (or falsity) vary with the sort of generalization being made. A universal generalization that books are heavier than insects would be true just so long as every book was heavier than every insect (that is, so long as no insect was heavier than any book). A restricted generalization that books are heavier than insects would be true just so long as most books were heavier than most insects (that is, so long as the majority of books were heavier than the majority of insects). Figuring out what size majority is needed for the statement to be true is an open problem question, but that doesn’t change whether or not the statements are true or false.

lillycoyote's avatar


Figuring out what size majority is needed for the statement to be true is an open problem question, but that doesn’t change whether or not the statements are true or false.


A restricted generalization that books are heavier than insects would be true just so long as most books were heavier than most insects.

Even a “restricted generalization,” where you could find that “sweet spot” of a certain size majority of instances wouldn’t be simply “true.” It would, and could, only be “mostly true” or “generally true.”

And as to the whole books and insects thing, here is an article about the tiniest book in the world. They don’t give a weight on it, just the dimensions, but I encountered Palmetto bugs in Texas that probably weighed more than that book.

And here is a picture of the book, I believe it is the same one, or one from the same print run, though I am not absolutely certain, and a centipede.

It’s a pretty damn tiny book at least, even if it isn’t the same one.

It seems quite possible that the centipede could very well weigh more than the book.

@CWOTUS, you were absolutely right to ask for statistics and additional data and documentation on the “books are heavier than insects thing.” It doesn’t appear to be as clear cut as one might think.

ETpro's avatar

@JeSuisRickSpringfield We can put the beetles versus books generalization to rest. The Goliath beetle reaches as much as 3.5 ounces (100 grams) in its larval stage. Adult males can be up to 4.3 inches (110 mm) long, but weigh much less than the larva.

Meanwhile, Guinness tells us that the world’s smallest book measures 0.00275×0.00393 (0.07×0.1 mm). In comparison, the head of a typical pin is 0.07874 inches (2 mm) in diameter. I don’t know how much it weighs, but I’d say the Goliath wins that contest hands down, and could eat that book in one bite.

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Nullo's avatar

@ETpro @lillycoyote I’m up, I’m up. Sorry for the delay; I’ve been sidetracked. Been painting the kitchen for about three days now and entertaining guests. Aaaand sometimes I ask myself what the point of all this is, and when I am unable to answer myself, I find other things to do.

@Jeruba There are some behaviors that are undertaken for the joy of harassing the speaker. Nitpicking is one. So is playing the Grammar Nazi. Precision of language is a thing to be treasured, but there’s a time and a place for instruction, and the middle of a forum thread about, say, pottery, is neither.
Watch some Monty Python. I’m pretty sure that there’s some specificity-oriented nitpicking in there.
I have been in a surly mood of late, so someone indulging in a close-hitting generalization would likely get the very compelling, “Ha. Shows what you know,” after which I may or may not proceed to enlighten him.
But a nitpicker is the sort of person who, when confronted with the assertion that cheese is good, will proceed to list all of the cheeses that he doesn’t like (instead of thinking of cheese as a category) out of what Mr. Adams called “sheer bloody-mindedness,” a term that I think is suitable.
This leaves ample space for all of those people who call into question the validity of the generalization for other concerns. in short, sometimes it’s important to be specific, and sometimes it’s not. Acting the former in the case of the latter makes you a nitpicker.

ETpro's avatar

@Nullo Well now that you’ve finally graced us with the wisdom you failed to finish last night, I’m glad you returned and completed the thought. Well said.

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