Saturday, August 15, 2009


Generalizations are used ubiquitously in modern communication. They are very useful ways of expressing principles and truths without adding billions of disclaimers to every statement. A generalization is: "a principle, statement, or idea having general application." In everyday speech, we use generalizations to talk about how things usually are and generally work. This is in direct contrast to universals, which apply to every instance of a given thing.

The reason that we predominantly use generalizations rather than universals is that our world is an exception-based one. Though things typically are certain ways, and though things typically work the same way, there are nearly always exceptions to things. For example, if I were to say that all humans have two arms, I would be stating such a fact as a generalization. Even though most people have two arms, I'm certain that there are some people who have lost a limb and have only one. There are probably even some people who have no arms at all. If I were to state that all humans have two arms as a universal, I would obviously be wrong, since there are some humans who have less than (or perhaps more than) two arms. Universals have their appropriate place in the realms of mathematics, abstract principles and definitions. Valid universal statements such as "1+1=2," "all planets have physical form" and, "nothing evil is good," are always true in all circumstances because of how we have defined such things. Anything that is stated as a universal must have no exceptions in order to be true. Therefore, very few statements can both be universal and true.

For this reason, Scott Adams has coined a little acronym that he applies to all statements.
I'd also like to proclaim here and now that all future sentences I utter are appended with the silent disclaimer "but of course there are obvious exceptions." The abbreviation is BOCTAOE.

This is important because about half of my time spent interacting with people involves me staring dully at them while they point out the obvious exception to whatever I've just said."

Me: Nice weather.
Other Person: Not everywhere on Earth. Plus, the day is young. It could still get cloudy later.
Me: Nice try, but I append all of my statements with a silent BOCTAOE.
Other Person: Damn the silent disclaimers!!!"
This is the strength of generalizations; since generalizations are general and do not claim to be universal, they are much easier to use validly. A generalization is true as long as it truly describes the standard way a thing is or functions. If I say that chairs have four legs, then my generalization is true as long as more four-legged chairs exist than three-legged chairs, two-legged chairs, or five-legged chairs...etc. If I say that Americans are illiterate, then my generalization is false if there are more illiterate Americans than literate ones.

The limitation of generalizations is that they vary in strength. Some generalizations have a strong correlation to reality, while others have a weak correlation. Sometimes the strength of a generalization is not readily apparent, which means that often a little bit of thinking is necessary to determine how strong a given generalization is. A generalization can vary in strength from 0.01% (impossibly weak) to 99.99% (shockingly strong). Anything that is true 100% of the time is a universal. Here are examples of some generalizations:

1 - Businesses seek profit above all else. This generalization is fairly strong. The main goal of most businesses is to earn a profit by providing a valuable service or selling a compelling product. However, there are certainly some business that are more concerned with helping society than with generating a profit. Non-profit organizations, some government-run businesses and a few other assorted businesses would fall into this category. However, since most businesses (more than 90%) pursue a profit, this generalization is strong.

2 - Middle-aged white men are dull and boring. This generalization is weak. Though there are certainly a lot of middle-aged white men who are boring and live quite dull lives, there are a good many who are interesting, fun, social and adventurous. This generalization probably isn't even true close to 60% of the time. Therefore it is a weak generalization and shouldn't be taken too seriously, even if it might have a hint of truth.

3 - Young children do not vote in elections. This generalization is exceptionally strong. However, if even a single young child votes in an election, it cannot be a universal. Given that underage people have been able to join the military, and given that identity theft is a reality in our world, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a politically-minded youngster finding a way to vote. However, since the exceptions to this are probably nearly zero, this generalization has a strength of around 99.99%. It is exceptionally strong.

Now that we have established what a generalization is and set forth standards for determining validity and strength, let us examine how they are used in everyday speech. As the excerpt I quoted from Scott Adams has demonstrated, rational people rarely use universals. Most intelligent people are acutely aware that there are many exceptions to most of their statements, exactly because such statements are generalizations rather than universals. However, if that short excerpt wasn't enough to conclusively demonstrate the cumbersomeness of speaking using universals, I shall give you another example.

When an ordinary person says, "The sky is blue," they are really saying something like the following. "Typically the sky appears blue in color to the unimpaired human eye during the daytime, except when there is odd pollution in the air, or when clouds are obstructing a view of the plain sky, or during sunrise or sunset when the sky appears red, yellow or some other color. The blue color that is seen may vary from being a light bluish color to being a darker, deeper blue; it may vary during the day, or season or based on your vantage point. This is also supposing that you are looking directly at the sky and not through a colored window or tinted sunglasses or any other sort of vision-filtering implement. Additionally, if you are not presently on the planet Earth, the sky may be imperceptible to you completely, in which case the sky appears transparent and colorless. But apart from all these exceptions and any other possible exceptions that I did not fully consider or articulate, under ordinary circumstances the sky appears blue."

To actually have to think about all that or state all the possible exceptions would render conversation prohibitively cumbersome and tedious. Therefore, when someone says, "The sky is blue," reasonable people assume that all of those disclaimers automatically apply, even when they are unstated. If ever a person says something, if there is even a single obvious exception, the only rational thing to do is assume that what is being stated is a generalization and is understood to be a generalization by the people speaking.

Because of this, even many things that might otherwise appear to be universal statements actually aren't and aren't intended to be interpreted as such. If I say that Christians read their Bibles, that coffee is tasty, that all people are sinners, or that I love music, I am not at all interested in hearing that some Christians don't read their Bibles, that some blends of coffee are horribly nasty, that Jesus wasn't a sinner or that there are plenty of bands and types of music that I wouldn't like. I already know all that! That's what all of those silent disclaimers are for. Other people also don't want to hear lots of nit-picky exceptions to their statements either. They also, are quite aware that there are exceptions.

This common sense rule will make all communication easier and less frustrating:
Unless something is explicitly a universal statement, it should not be treated as such.


  1. Operation Mafia is a massive multiplayer online mafia text based game. You are a mafia who starts with nothing your goal are to become a ruthless mafia. To achieve this you will have to complete difficult mafia operations as you go up.

  2. Operation Mafia is a massive multiplayer online mafia text based game. You are a mafia who starts with nothing your goal are to become a ruthless mafia. To achieve this you will have to complete difficult mafia operations as you go up.

  3. Hello! This post couldn't be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

    my homepage inexpensive car insurance quotes