Do You Generalize from One Example?

December 2011

in Self-awareness

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I’m writing a series that highlights key material from This post is based on Generalizing From One Example by Yvain.

“Everyone generalizes from one example. At least, I do.” –Vlad Taltos (Issola, Steven Brust)

Have you ever been confused by someone’s personal preference for having things spotlessly clean? How about filthy and disorganized?

We have a tendency to generalize from our own personalities and behaviors, which has been called the Typical Psyche Fallacy.

Yvain—a self-described extreme introvert—gives an example from his childhood:

“All through elementary and middle school, I suspected that the other children were out to get me. They kept on grabbing me when I was busy with something and trying to drag me off to do some rough activity with them and their friends. When I protested, they counter-protested and told me I really needed to stop whatever I was doing and come join them. I figured they were bullies who were trying to annoy me, and found ways to hide from them and scare them off.

Eventually I realized that it was a double misunderstanding. They figured I must be like them, and the only thing keeping me from playing their fun games was that I was too shy. I figured they must be like me, and that the only reason they would interrupt a person who was obviously busy reading was that they wanted to annoy him.”

It is easy to forget that other people don’t think exactly like we do. We are so intimately connected to our own thought process that it’s hard to imagine it running differently.

This problem tends to rear its ugly head in disagreements.

“We tend to neglect the role of differently-built minds in disagreements, and attribute the problems to the other side being deliberately perverse or confused.”

It’s like when your roommate doesn’t understand why you need extreme quiet to get anything done, and you don’t understand why she needs everything to be so spotlessly clean all the time. You both attribute these facts to a weird quirk in the other person, without realizing that uncleanliness may be as disruptive to her as noise is to you.

This tendency to generalize from ourselves also causes the fallacy of “believing your own social circle is at least a little representative of society at large, which it very rarely is.”

This fallacy ties in closely with Beware of Other-Optimizing: we can’t assume that what works for us will work for others!

Rationality can help us deal with this problem. We must place more trust on the actual data—such as the existence of extremely polarized introverted and extroverted people—than on our default generalizations.

“[When] statistics tells you that the method that would work on you doesn’t work on anyone else, then continuing to follow that gut feeling is a Typical Psyche Fallacy. You’ve got to be a good rationalist, reject your gut feeling, and follow the data.”

Things to Remember

  1. We have very different personalities and behaviors.
  2. We tend to generalize about others from our own unique personalities and behaviors.
  3. We are not perfectly average and representative of society at large. Neither are our social groups.
  4. We must recognize the above and reject our gut feelings when they are leading us astray.

Read the original article here: Generalizing From One Example by Yvain.

For all such summaries of Less Wrong posts see the Less Wrong tag.