A generalization is a broad statement or idea applied to a group of people or things. It applies a general truth to everyone or everything in a group, simply because they're in that group. While faulty generalizations tend to forget about individuals or situations about whom the generalization doesn’t apply, valid generalizations can help us draw a conclusion about our world.
Generalizations that are not supported by facts are called faulty generalizations. They involve either applying broad claims to individual instances (sweeping generalizations) or using one or two examples to form a general conclusion (hasty generalizations). Faulty generalizations include clue words such as all, always, every, never, or none.
Examples of faulty generalizations are:
Every salesperson lies to make more money on a sale.
Math homework is very easy.
The United States is colder than Europe.
Women all want to have large families.
Men are all afraid of commitment.
Politicians are greedy and manipulative.
All cats are meaner than dogs.
All dogs are smarter than cats.
All teenagers are reckless drivers.
Everyone who goes to college is an elitist.
No children appreciate art.
Gentlemen with a wealthy upbringing are always trustworthy.
Everyone loves a delivery of flowers and a box of chocolates.
People who have committed crimes can never be trusted.
All police officers are heroes.
Pretty people are always stuck up.
Overweight people always overeat.
Everyone loves chocolate cake.
When you read these examples, you can probably think of at least one or two exceptions to each one. For example, you probably know a salesperson who does not lie to make a sale or a place in the United States that is not colder than anywhere in Europe. Making faulty generalizations can lead to harmful stereotypes and prejudice toward groups of people.
Making valid generalizations is an effective way to understand the world around us. For example, when you see a feathered creature flying in the sky, you use generalization skills to conclude “That is a bird.” Valid generalizations can be proven and supported with facts. Their clue words include most, many, some, often or few.
Changing faulty generalizations to valid generalizations can be as simple as changing a few words. Examples of valid generalizations include:
Some salespeople lie to make more money on a sale.
Math homework is very easy for some people.
A few parts of the United States are colder than parts of Europe.
Some women want to have large families.
Some men are afraid of commitment.
Some politicians are greedy and manipulative.
Cats are often meaner than some dogs.
Some dogs are smarter than some cats.
Some teenagers can be reckless drivers.
A few people who go to college become elitists.
Many children have a hard time appreciating art.
Gentlemen with a wealthy upbringing are sometimes trustworthy.
Most people love a delivery of flowers and a box of chocolates.
Some people who have committed crimes cannot be trusted.
Most police officers are heroes.
Pretty people are often stuck up.
Overweight people sometimes overeat.
Many people love chocolate cake.
Notice that these statements are difficult to argue because they describe only some or most people. They assume that there will be an exception. Valid generalizations may be less dramatic, but they’re ultimately more effective when writing an argument.
The next time you find yourself generalizing with an overly broad statement about a topic or a group of people, stop and think about whether you are making a generalization. Could someone easily argue against it by finding an exception? Are you causing harm or depending on confirmation bias with your generalization? Be confident in your argument by avoiding faulty generalizations.