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Look After Your Mind

The Dangers of Generalising

‘We think in generalities but we live in detail.’ Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher and mathematician.

As I mentioned in my last article, our thoughts and our feelings are linked. Pleasant thoughts make us feel good, while unpleasant thoughts can easily generate anxiety, anger, sadness and so on.

Another feature of our thoughts is their degree of generality. In other words, we might think and speak in terms of a generalisation or in fine detail. Generalisations are a useful ‘shorthand’ when we communicate with each other, but they are rather vague. ‘I enjoyed my holiday in Wales. The people were so friendly.’ These sentences make sense but are very woolly and we learn little from them. When I think of Wales I have particular thoughts in my mind - perhaps of previous visits there, things about Wales I’ve seen on TV or read in books, or what other people have told me. When you think of Wales your thoughts are probably quite different, based as they are on your own individual experiences.

Generalised thoughts can carry a strong emotional charge. For instance, I have a friend who ‘hates BMW drivers’. Firstly, notice the extreme term ‘hate’. Notice too how ‘BMW drivers’ implies everyone who drives a BMW. While my friend was driving me to the railway station once I said, “Hey Mark, did you see that BMW go through a red light just then?” Mark immediately went off on a passionate tirade about how BMW drivers were a menace on the roads. As he spoke his face reddened and his hands tightened on the wheel as his anger increased. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that no BMW had jumped the lights; I’d made it up.

On another occasion I was going into Leicester by bus and couldn’t help but overhear two ladies talking behind me. One of them said, “Well of course you can’t trust Leicester people.” And her friend immediately agreed.

The way to challenge generalisations (though I wasn’t brave enough to do so then) is to ask for further information and offer ‘what if’ scenarios. So -

What if someone moved to Leicester a year ago? Would you distrust them as much as someone who was Leicester born? What if someone was born in Leicester but moved to Northampton aged three. Would you distrust them then? What exactly do you mean by a ‘Leicester person’? What particular experiences have led you to believe that ‘Leicester people’ are not trustworthy?

So in terms of looking after our minds, it’s worth noticing and challenging our own generalisations, especially ones with negative connotations or ones that generate negative feelings.                          

Steve Bowkett

Issue 395
October
2017


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