What would you think if scientists announced that bananas will kill you? You would probably be suspicious of their conclusion. You’d want to see their data. But, if you found they only looked at the case of one person who choked to death on a banana, you would question the fitness of these scientists to practice the science of science. Yet, every day, we are all coming up with wild conclusions that are based on sample sizes of one. In fact, this is the root of much of the hate we see in this country.
The Hasty Generalization
If you don’t have a master’s degree in psychology and haven’t conducted scientific research, then you may not know what the term “sample size” means. Basically, it’s the number of data points you collect in your study. For example, if I ask 200 consumers if they would recommend using Brains Report before making a purchase, the sample size would be 200. For demonstration purposes only, let’s say 180 (90%) of the respondents said, “Yes, we do recommend Brains Report.” And, the other 20 clearly misunderstood the question and said, “No.”
When you have a sample size of one, you run into a problem. For instance, let’s say in my research study, I only talked to one consumer, and he happened to be a real Grade-A moron and part of the slim minority who would say, “No.” My conclusion from this sample size of one would be completely different (and clearly less accurate) than the sample size of 200. The smaller the sample size, the less confident you can be in your conclusions. And, with a sample size of one, you shouldn’t have any confidence. What I call the “sample size of one problem” is more commonly known as a “hasty generalization.”
Why Hasty Generalizations Are Dangerous
Based on just about everything I’ve read, and I’m known to be a bit of a reader, the majority of hate in our world comes from people making hasty generalizations. I had one of those people from high school who Facebook friends you for no good reason tell me that black people were a bunch of thugs because when he delivered beer in certain neighborhoods as part of his job, there were always black people trying to steal the beer.
One might argue that his sample size was larger than one, but it was not that much larger. And, well, no matter the race or ethnicity, it’s not really a good practice to base your entire opinion of a group of people based on who you find hanging outside of party stores. The associate from high school spent plenty of time with white people in different settings so he did not make the hasty generalization with that race. And, he would probably have a different opinion of blacks if he sought out interactions in different environments. But, he’s afraid of thugs.
Depressed people also tend to indulge in hasty generalizations. They might have a negative interaction with a friend or stranger having a rough day and get the idea that everyone hates them. Sure, we all hate depressed people. But still, when you’re depressed, it’s so easy to make conclusions off of one interaction.
What Can We Do?
It’s incredibly hard to avoid making generalizations. As humans, we try to find patterns in our environment. I’m sure there’s a good evolutionary explanation for it. Maybe it keeps us from getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers or something. Anyway, if you find yourself making generalizations that lead you to hate or feel depressed, check your sample size. Are you basing your conclusions on a few instances? Scientific studies have thousands of data points. So, your sample size of three or four really shouldn’t lead you to any conclusions.
Instead, you should seek out more and varied data points. As mentioned above, the racist beer delivery guy could interact with African Americans in other situations to see if they really are the thugs he believes them to be. Mr. Depressed Pants could try talking to other friends rather than drawing inward with the conclusion that everyone hates him.
The bottom line is that you should not let one incident control how you see the world. It’s always helpful to check your sample size.