We are naturally inclined to associate only one idea with one person. This innocuous cognitive limitation called generalization is hugely responsible for decoloring people and societies.
Sigmund Freud originally identified a condition wherein some men couldn’t get sexual arousal in a committed relationship. He claimed that these men suffered from Madonna-Whore Complex, wherein they could see a woman either as a saintly Madonna or debased Whore. Of course, social biologists (and even some psychologists) these days would tell you that these men suffer from the ennui of monogamy. But their argument can’t hold water when you consider that men marry certain type of women and sleep around with different type of women (women are no different either; but that is the topic for another post).
The reason that most people can’t see both a dependable partner and playful sex-fiend in a single person is due to the cognitive error of generalization. We can associate only one image with one person. Even when we look at our own self, we like to generalize!
People in marketing have known this cognitive limitations for a long time (you can read more about it in Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout). For example, we all think of Toyota as ‘value for money’ car. So, when Toyota wanted to sell luxury cars, it named it Lexus and formed a completely independent sales and service network. When Coke did a brand extension (by coming up with more varieties like Diet Coke, etc.), people got confused about what that name stood for and it lost market share to rivals.
Remember how we are usually surprised that the topper of the class back in the school/college days ends up with just a ho-hum life. Or, how the back benchers always seem to have a knack for coming on top in real life. We are surprised only because we have wrongly generalized that someone who is doing good in studies must be good in everything else too.
This compulsion to want to put people into neat categories is a cognitive trick used to reduce the amount of energy spent by our brain. When people behave in a way that demands rethinking on our part, we go out of the way to deny the reality or for the deviant to confirm. It is a lazy way of living. But we should not under estimate the power of mental inertia. The entire multi-billion dollar advertising industry is there only to change our mind by working against the mental inertia.
This is a basic limitation with it origin in the core of our biology. We have always lived with this limitation. Our societies and social norms have integrated this limitation into the very fabric. While generalization has its own advantage (saves on time and energy spent thinking), damages due to generalization pops up everywhere we look.
We will see several more manifestations of generalization in the future posts.