Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Generalization: Learning the lessons of history today that saved us tomorrow

Generalization: Lessons from history--but which ones?
A few months before Katrina, I caught one of the early Mardi Gras parades in a rural town outside New Orleans. Race relations there seemed different from those here in Northern California. Blacks were more outgoing and friendly to whites, and yet there also seemed to be more racial segregation. At the parade, the floats and teams were strictly segregated. The only integration I saw was a few clusters of black and white teens. I watched a policeman go out of his way to harass a black youth who was hanging out with some white girls.

As I was heading back to my car I saw one group by a 7-11 and thought to ask them directly about the state of race relations. A white girl spoke for them all, "Oh, it's getting better. The police still give you a hard time but it's not bad." I thanked her and walked toward my car feeling pleased and hopeful; it was good to hear from a like-minded youth who was transcending past bigotries.

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The girl called me back. "You say you're from San Francisco?" she asked.

"Are they still letting gays marry there? 'Cause I think that's so disgusting."

OK, not entirely like-minded. She had learned a lesson about bigotry, but she hadn't generalized it. Me, I've seen enough instances of destructive bigotry to extrapolate to a universal pattern. Bigotry against blacks, Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, gays--I get it--no bigotry is acceptable. What you don't do to blacks you don't do to gays either.

In this election I'm hoping a disenchanted nation will do some careful generalizing. Too much focus on Bush and Cheney's bad character distracts us from questions about what makes them bad. If we conclude that they're just bad apples, then what's to stop equally counterproductive people with different names and faces from taking their places?

Everyone says, "People who don't learn the lessons of history are forced to repeat it," but if that statement doesn't miss the point completely, it just barely grazes it. Sure, we should try to learn lessons--but the real question is which lessons, what generalizations? From Stalin and Hitler should we generalize to no more leaders with mustaches? No more short people?

What we want, of course, is to generalize lessons from history that end up paying off in the future. Unfortunately, although that's a great goal, it's useless as a rule of thumb. The future isn't here yet, so you can't use it directly to guide your generalizations.

"Son, my advice to you is buy low, sell high, and always learn today what worked tomorrow."

Still, our society's accelerated progress over the past few centuries is largely a product of culture realizing that right generalization is the name of the game. Science and engineering are largely attempts to systematize the process of effective generalization. In the hope of promoting that process, however slightly, here are a few generalizations about generalization applied to the coming election.

Undergeneralizing: Sometimes we fail to learn because we fail to generalize at all. Bush voters who now criticize the president tend to defend their votes. Yes, Bush turned out to be a lemon, an exception to the otherwise fine products of the conservative movement. Gore, Kerry, and the whole liberal agenda would have been much worse. McCain will fix things. Abu Ghraib? A few bad low-level soldiers. There's nothing to learn, no generalization to be drawn.

When McCain said the economic problem was caused by greedy people on Wall street and that the answer was to fire the head of the SEC, he sounded like unsophisticated leftists I knew in the '70s. The problem is a few greedy people leading big corporations. Replace them with un-greedy people like me and it will all be groovy.

Overgeneralizing: Litmus-test partisans think they've found the one or two factors from which you can generalize to everything you need to know about a candidate. A Christian? Anti-abortion? For gay marriage? Divorced? A loyal spouse? For change? A traditionalist? The Sufis say, "He who's burnt by hot milk blows on ice cream." Not all dairy products will burn you. And not all Christians are great leaders. To litmus-test partisans on the left or the right, expert status isn't earned through careful analysis but through passionate self-certainty. They ignore last chances to fix things because they've lost peripheral vision. They've found the one cause that matters. It's a priority not because they've compared it to other issues but because they can make an impassioned argument for its intrinsic and isolated merit. "But don't you see, it's a fundamental right!"

Motivated generalization: An alcoholic ponders what's causing those daily hangovers. Monday: gin and tonic; Tuesday: vodka and tonic; Wednesday: whiskey and tonic; Thursday: rum and tonic. Clearly it's the tonic.

Generalization serves two masters. One is, of course, our future selves. We hope to learn history's real lessons so we don't have to repeat them. The other is our present gut instinct, which definitely prefers some lessons to others. The alcoholic's future self wants to avoid future hangovers, but the alcoholic's gut doesn't want to discover that those hangovers are caused by alcohol rather than tonic.

Most Republicans don't seem to want to consider the possibility that they've had a substantial chance to try their ideas out in the real world and that in general those ideas don't work as well as they had hoped. Just this week, days after the $700 billion bailout was announced, I was probing a right-wing friend about the core values and principles that drive his beliefs. He's for the bailout as the lesser of two evils. On core values, though, he proudly told me one thing he knows for sure. Liberal efforts to regulate the free market have failed over and over and should never be tried again. No mention of the possibility that conservatives have anything to learn here.

This same friend tells me that he relishes arguing with liberals like me because our arguments are so weak and implausible. He's the second conservative to tell me that this month. In other words, we generalize poorly. We're either slow learners or we're driven to our generalizations by our gut instincts, not our rational minds as they are.

Psychological research* indicates that we all generalize through two parallel systems, the rational mind and the gut, and that the gut predominates. The gut is faster acting than the rational mind. It's often right or we wouldn't survive. But there's plenty of evidence that the gut gets it wrong consistently on crucial matters.

Ideally, therefore, we'd be rational about when to use our gut instincts and when to be rational. Among the more troubling findings therefore is strong evidence that most of us assume we're more rational than we in fact are. We interpret gut instincts as rational instincts. Guts have the upper hand. Our guts tell us our rational minds are telling us that our rational minds are generalizing from the evidence and not our guts. We generalize incorrectly about our generalizing performance and skill.

Me and all my Obama-supporting friends included. We assume we're the rational ones. Given the psychological evidence regarding everyone's ability to interpret their interpretive prowess, we're disqualified as authorities on the subject of our own rationality. So are our equally gut-motivated Republican detractors. Indeed, posterity gets the final word on whose generalizing skills were best. It alone knows how skillful we were at generalizing to the right lessons of history to learn and not the wrong ones. Unfortunately it was unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.

* For a great new survey of the findings, check out Nudge: Improving decisions about health wealth and happiness.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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