When to generalize is wrong: Experience is sometimes deceiving

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Joe Dispenza


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Back in 1976 two psychologists, Hamilton and Gifford, designed an experiment that is now considered a classic in the history of psychology. These researchers created two groups, group A (the orange blossoms) and group B (the begonias), and then worked out a list of positive and negative characteristics. For example, they indicated that members of group A used to help old ladies cross the street while those of group B urinated on the sidewalk.

Later other people were involved, they were asked to read these characteristics and to judge each group. Interestingly, everyone regarded group B as a gang of gangsters and their behavior was very rebellious, while the orange blossom (A) seemed like better people.

The interesting thing is that statistically, both groups had the same amount of negative behaviors (about 44%) while the rest were positive. For group B 18 negative and 8 positive behaviors were described while for group A (the orange holes) 9 positive and 4 negative.

Clearly, statistics don't matter much for judgment. It didn't even matter that half of the information was offered about the second group, they considered it better anyway. What happened? How did this generalization come about, which was obviously unfair?

In essence, it happened that the readers saw listed a greater number of negative behaviors referring to one group and therefore concluded that this was worse than the other. Regardless of the fact that positive behaviors were also more numerous.

Why are we so partial in our judgments?

One possible explanation is that our brains don't understand much about statistics, especially when it comes to making moral judgments. For example, if an extraterrestrial lives in your neighborhood who listens to loud music, throws garbage on the street and doesn't say hello to anyone, you would immediately generalize into thinking that all extraterrestrials are like that. Even if you have known only one of extraterrestrials: your neighbor.

The same problem exists with foreigners who come from different cultures. It is enough to meet two or three people (or believe the news published in the media) to establish that the rest also behave the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The key point is that we always try to make sense of the world around us. Our brains tend to label everything because, in an emergency, we can have a stereotype or generalization ready for use. This is a perfectly normal process, we all do it.

In fact, it is such a visceral answer that the problem is not in the generalization itself, but in how we use it later. Will we hide behind the unfair and erroneous generalization or will we leave room for change? Of course, the answer is entirely up to us.

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