The Heuristic Mind of James Thurber
In the March 26, 1949 issue of The New Yorker, James Thurber published one of his wittiest essays, entitled “What a Lovely Generalization!” In it, the self-described collector of odd things describes his latest collecting passion—broad generalizations overheard in conversation. I find the essay amusing because I do this a lot more than I probably should; it’s satisfying on some level to make sweeping statements that do away with bothersome exceptions and qualifiers and nuance. The science writer in me recognizes this universal impulse to generalize (itself a sweeping generalization) as the heuristic mind in action. At least two powerful cognitive biases—the Caricature Heuristic and the Design Heuristic, both discussed at length in On Second Thought)—illuminate this common trait. But cognitive psychology is never entertaining, so let’s skip it and enjoy a few of Thurber’s most cherished collectibles:
“There are no pianos in Japan.” Thurber explains that he acquired this beauty from a woman whose great-uncle had married a singer in Tokyo in 1912. Some months later, he happened to read in the Saturday Evening Post that before the war, there were some fifteen thousand pianos in Japan. So this is a good example of a generalization that is demonstrably untrue.
“You never see foreigners fishing.” This was 1949, of course. Foreigners are much more likely in 2011 to fish where they can be seen.
“Gamblers hate women.” Thurber concedes that this has an authentic ring, as does “Sopranos drive men crazy.”
“People who like birds are funny.” Questionable in Thurber’s experience, and in mine.
“Generals are afraid of their daughters.” There were a lot more generals around right after the war than there are today, so it’s possible that true sweeping statements of one era become untrue over time.
Thurber warns readers about the pitfalls of this particular form of collecting. Collectors tend to miss out on the meaning of conversations; their mouths (always) hang open; and collectors’ eyes “take on the rapt expression of a person listening for the faint sound of distant sleigh bells.” But even with these drawbacks, he concludes, a collection of generalizations is a continuing “source of comfort in your declining years.” Even if the generalizations are dubious, such as the writer’s recent addition: “Jewelers never go anywhere.”
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