The human brain has a remarkable ability to categorize data. We use heuristics, or mental “rules of thumb”, to make sense of the world around is with efficiency, and usually, accuracy. That vital ability to generalize has protected us from harm since the beginning of our species, and it still aids us immensely in processing and storing information.
But the human tendency to generalize also gets us in a lot of trouble. The brain’s predisposition to throw sensory and contextual data into categories takes much of the blame for forms of human illogic such as stereotyping, prejudice, and jumping to conclusions.
Disillusioned with the failings of our logical process, we may feel tempted to shirk the instinct to generalize all together. At first blush, it sounds like a fantastic (if impossible) way to cure the world of much its ignorance and needless hate. If we could remove the part of the brain that draws quick conclusions automatically, where would that leave us as a species?
Well, it would make us autistic.
Psychologists associate autism with poor social skills, lacking communication ability, and a stubbornly structured and highly literal way of information processing. According to Harvard University Professor of Psychology Daniel Schacter in his book The Seven Sins of Memory, Autistics lack real-world critical thinking skills because they look at everything in an individualized, literal way. This explains in part why autistics tend to have astounding rote memorization, yet lack any grasp of context.
Without the ability to generalize, we would all function like the movie Rainman’s real-life inspiration, a man named Raymond Babbit, who could calculate vastly complex mathematical problems but couldn’t understand the basic concept of buying and selling goods. If we couldn’t categorize numbers as “quantities” “weights” “heights” or “prices”, the cost of an item would seem like a foreign, nonsense concept, and no different from any other number.
Our ability to generalize also plays a key role in the function of memory. As much as it may bother us when we fail to remember a specific detail- what song we heard at a wedding reception, where we left the car keys- our tendency to recall only the “gist” of things makes memories more manageable. As Schacter writes:
what would be the consequences of retaining the myriad of contextual details that define our numerous daily experiences? We seldom need to remember all of the precise sensory and contextual details of every experience.”
Imagine if your brain didn’t categorize sensory data as “important” or “not important”, and instead took a perfect mental snapshot. Imagine that you could remember every song, every person, and every weather condition you ever encountered. Schacter postulates that this would make summoning a specific memory even more maddening.
And what of the generalizations that lead to biases and stereotypes? Unlike with memory, such generalizations have regrettable effects such as racism, yet the common tendency to associate men with aggression, blacks with poverty or crime, and artists with temperamental attitudes (to name a few) comes from a justifiable adaptation. Schacter explains that we use stereotypes as
energy-saving devices that simplify the task of comprehending our social world. Because it may require considerable cognitive effort to size up every new person we meet as a unique individual, we often find it easier to fall back on stereotypical generalizations from various sources, including discussion with other people, printed and electronic media, and firsthand experience.”
Occasionally one hears the claim that “all stereotypes have their roots in truth”. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, black men do have the highest rate of arrest in the US, for example. Unfortunately, our brains don’t take the time to consider the difference between causation and correlation when analyzing a stranger in the dark as a threat. For that reason, even the mostly nonprejudiced have a much higher rate of fleeing from a black stranger in the dark than from a white stranger, according to a study by Professors Mahzarin and Banaji at Yale University.Stereotypes seem endlessly cruel, but consider this practical example of the brain’s generalizations at work: parenting magazines recommend that parents instruct their children to seek out women to help them in the event that they become lost, because women have a much higher likelihood of committing to helping (and of not having a history as a criminal or sexual predator). In the contemporary world, our tendency to generalize without a thought often harms us, but it comes from a sensible natural root. Even if we wanted to sever the ability, it would leave us in a worse predicament.