Generalisations

The human brain is built to generalise. One of its finest features is the ability to derive patterns and then use those patterns to inform behaviour.

This is particularly true in programming where we synthesise the world into lines of code. We even have generalised ‘design patterns’ within the discipline of programming and software engineering.

We train ourselves to spot the patterns and use them to our advantage in our work. A great software engineer is one who sees the big picture and understands the flow of information around it and the abstraction of behaviours in its actors.

One of human’s biggest weaknesses is our ability to create generalisations and not question them: stereotypes.

One of the stereotypes I’m most exposed to right now, is those about toddling boys and girls. The number of times as a new parent that you hear “that’s just boys being boys” or “girls are just quieter”.

These stereotypes don’t fit my experience.

I have twins: a boy and a girl. Often they do opposite of their stereotype, but comments are only drawn when they act within it. Humans throw away information when it disagrees with a hardened generalisation.

Reducing all children to the ‘understood’ characteristics of their gender is incredibly harmful. Both to the kids themselves and to the otherwise sensible adults saying it. This is true across race, gender, nationality and any other line you might draw.

You even see this when buying clothes for babies: it’s pink or blue or white. And that’s it. And as they get older: cars or princesses. What are we doing? What impact do these seemingly harmless generalisations have?

The next time you make a sweeping statement about a group, think again. And work out whether what you’re saying is only attributable to individuals.

The line between generalisation and stereotype is a thin one, be conscious of staying on the helpful side.


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2015