It is an easily observable fact that the human mind excels at pattern matching. We do it all the time. We see patterns or shapes that are familiar to us. There is nothing wrong with this – it is a crucial element in our very survival to be able to recognize things we have seen before, to have on file the traits and characteristics of things which we need to get along in life.
However, the mind can sometimes be too good at this. Often we can see patterns or shapes in things that are actually just random jumbles of different elements. Examples of this also happen every single day, such as seeing monsters in cloud formations, thinking an open shower curtain is a person waiting to pounce on you in the bathroom, or seeing faces on almost everything from a piece of toast to the side of a building. Scientists and skeptics have even coined words to describe this pattern-making trait of human thinking, calling it apophenia and patternicity.
It is no big leap of logic to understand why this happens. The human mind likes things to be orderly and familiar. It is directly related to our sense of security and control. If things are random or jumbled about or when we are in unfamiliar territory, we feel that we are not in control. When things are orderly and in place and familiar, this alone can have a natural calming or peaceful effect. So, when things are not familiar, the human mind will invent connections or associations that don’t actually exist. This is far easier for most people to do rather than recognize and deal with the fact that something just doesn’t make sense or isn’t familiar or has to be considered in a new light.
To Label or Not to Label
Putting a label on something is a method of pattern recognition or identification. When you have identified an illness as “smallpox” or an individual as “John Doe” then you no longer have any confusion about who or what that thing is. Labelling or naming people and things certainly is necessary or we truly would live in a world of utter random chaos. We would never be able to communicate to each other about anything.
But labelling has a dark side. It can be used too broadly or too generally. This far too frequent practice occurs every day in the media and in our personal lives and actually serves to get in the way of our ability to think. More often than not it leads directly to false identifications, incorrect assumptions and wildly wrong conclusions about individuals, groups, organizations, religions, social causes and political issues.
Where Labels are Wrong
When a thing is named or labeled, the mind assigns that thing certain characteristics or makes conclusions about it based on the label. This doesn’t mean these labels are accurate. In fact, when you start talking about broad classes of things, labels can become very inaccurate.
Take cars, for example. Someone could “know” that because a car is a “Ford” that it is more expensive, of better quality and will be more rugged or solidly built than other cars. Similarly, a “Subaru” is made in Japan, is cheaper in price, probably has more electronic components, is compact and is not a vehicle you would want to be in if it was rammed from the side by a large truck. These characteristics could all be assigned automatically to any car (regardless of its model type) to any “Ford” or “Subaru.” But are these assumptions actually true?
This is even more obviously wrong when applied to people, who are far more complex than inanimate objects. For example, I could say that all people who are atheists are characterized by having no belief in any gods, are completely intolerant of any kind of faith-based thinking, want traditional holidays banned, get into heated “discussions as often as possible with people who do have faith (especially Christians) and they are blatantly sexist.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I could label a person as a fundamental Christian and therefore know that this person is completely intolerant of any other belief system, goes to Church every Sunday, believes the Bible is God’s literal truth and is historical fact, thinks all science is a useless and stupid waste of time and wants everyone on Earth to realize that they are basically evil. So am I right?
I’m sure at some point in your life you have encountered this kind of thinking. Was the person who labelled you accurate in their assessment? Did you think of them as a very rational or logical person?
The problem with the examples I’m giving is that I am making broad, generalized statements about a whole class of people or things which obviously do not apply to every single person or thing in that group.
Using the term “label” can be a miss because not all labels are bad or wrong or generalized. I actually prefer to use a different term to set it apart from a mere name or label: a generality. In the list of logical fallacies, this is called faulty generalization and is a form of jumping to conclusions.
Identifying a broad class of people is obviously necessary for purposes of classification or census or statistics. It would be extremely helpful for medical personnel to know how many people have type AB blood in a given area. A medical census could quickly establish this and you could have a broad category of “potential AB blood donors”. It’s also helpful to know how many people consider themselves Christians or Mormons or Hari Krishnas, when one is seeking to get demographics information for a population sample. This information has certain practical uses in PR and marketing, for example.
It becomes problematic when a broad label, a generality, is applied to individuals or groups as a substitute for thinking.
Generalities Stop Rational Thinking
Generalities are very dangerous to thinking because they are actually thought-stopping. When someone uses a generality to identify someone, they no longer have “think” about that person. In fact, the generality serves as its own sort of mental image or picture of the person. So you get this odd phenomenon of people not arguing with the person in front of them and dealing with their ideas and beliefs, but instead arguing with a kind of false, generalized mock-up of a “liberal” or a “Christian” or a “bigot” instead.
Generalities are the basis of almost all prejudice, which by its very nature is faulty logic.
Truth is a specific thing. Joe Jones is a specific individual with his own set of ideas, conclusions and beliefs. You can’t argue with Joe Jones by labeling him as a “liberal” and then coming down on him for every single thing any “liberal” has every said. It might feel good to “vent” against Joe Jones, but you certainly won’t be changing his mind by telling him that he thinks and feels things that he doesn’t.
Thinking Takes Work
It is easy to be a lazy thinker by using generalities. People do it every day all around us.
It takes practice and work to break out of generalized thinking. It will greatly enhance your own ability to think rationally and clearly by recognizing generalities in your own thinking and cancelling them out whenever you find them. Talking about “evil conservatives” or even “evil Nazis” is easy to do but it’s not accurate or rational and it’s not any kind of accurate reflection of the real world.
The real world is complex and full of variety and differences. Generalities are some people’s attempt to make complex issues or situations simple and easy to understand. H. L. Mencken said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Unfortunately, sometimes things are just not easy to understand and require us to work hard to be able to grasp them.
Generalities more often than not lead to a chain of logical fallacies and wrong conclusions which just bungle up your ability to see the truth. Avoid them like the plague. Be specific and clear and definite in your thinking. You’ll find the world much easier to understand as a result.