Generalizations and stereotypes

Generalizations, Stereotypes, and Reality

Generalizations make our lives easier to manage. It makes risk assessment easier.

  • What is safer, a walk in the park or a walk down an alley?
  • If I need directions, do I ask the young kid wearing the baggy pants, backward cap, 10 pounds of jewelry, and the tattoo of the snake; or do I ask the older fellow wearing the pleated slacks and polo shirt?

By generalizing about the people, places, and things around us, we are able to make quick decisions that are most likely to be effective. We can negotiate risk and avoid potential dangers.

Generalizations don’t always work out for the best. Parks can be dangerous. Well-dressed older gentlemen can be serial killers. Still, we have to negotiate our world somehow.

Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Another word for generalization… is ‘stereotype,’ and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives.”

Stereotypes go further than generalizations. They are often based on misconceptions, or drawn from unreliable data.

Generalization
Stereotype
American Heritage Dictionary “a principle, statement, or idea having general application” “a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image. “
WordNet “reasoning from detailed facts to general principles” “a conventional or formulaic conception or image”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary “an often oversimplified or biased mental picture held to characterize the typical individual of a group”

Breed Stereotypes

We generalize about (or perhaps stereotype) dog breeds all the time.

  • “The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal dog.” (AKC website)
  • “The [Dalmatian] is very active and needs plenty of exercise.” (Wikipedia, now rewritten)
  • “Although the smaller poodles share the standard’s intelligence, they are much more active indoors and out; less stable, especially with children; more demanding of attention; and frequently are yappy.” (Dog Owner’s Guide)

While our generalizations about dogs can help us navigate the tens of millions of dogs out there in order to find “the right dog” for our family, those who take the generalizations as a guarantee or absolute will inevitably be let down.

When we generalize, we ignore the individual traits and qualities that make each and every dog different. Not all Dalmatians are active. Not all poodles are yappy.

These generalizations can also be very dangerous. The world’s first face transplant recipient might have something to say about the Labrador Retriever’s “gentle ways.” People, especially children, are regularly bitten by stereotyped “family” breeds.

Pit Bulls and Stereotype

Pit bulls are not really a single breed, and everyone defines the term differently. Dogs with a “pit bull” label are surrounded by a lot of mythology and emotion. It is exceedingly difficult to find solid, factual, unbiased information about pit bulls. It becomes perilous, therefore, to make reasonable generalizations about pit bulls without straying into stereotypes.

The stereotypical pit bull is really a concept pieced together from ideas, rumors, myths, and facts. You might have heard stereotypes about pit bulls like:

  • Pit bulls are good with children
  • Pit bulls are vicious
  • Pit bulls are strong and athletic
  • Pit bulls are aggressive toward other dogs
  • Pit bulls are loyal
  • Pit bulls are clowns

No doubt, there are pit bulls out there who have one or several of these traits. But each and every pit bull—just like every dog and every living creature—is still an individual animal with individual traits. Some pit bulls might be vicious, and others will be friendly. Some pit bulls may be athletic; other pit bulls will be lazy. Some pit bulls will dislike other dogs; other pit bulls will love all other dogs; and still other pit bulls might like some dogs and dislike others! Every dog is going to be different.

Treat Dogs as Individuals

Generalizations about dog breed traits cannot be thought of as guarantees or absolutes; they are ideal traits, not reality. If you take home the first Labrador Retriever you see, because you believe it will be friendly and good with kids, you might be disappointed. If you get a pit bull because you think it will be a good running partner, you might be disappointed.

When you decide to choose a dog, treat your candidates as individuals, not breeds. Evaluate each individual dog’s level of energy, attentiveness, friendliness, and so forth. Don’t just run out and get a [insert breed here], and assume it’s going to turn out just like the owner’s manual or breed standard describes.

When you meet a strange dog, treat the dog as an individual, not a breed. Study the dog’s body language and think about what it’s trying to tell you. If you assume that a Lab is going to be friendly because Labs are generally friendly, you might end up in the hospital. If you banish pit bulls from your presence because you believe they are all vicious, you are discriminating against dogs based on their appearance—and if that doesn’t bother you, well, remember that you are discriminating against people too.

On this website, I make generalizations. I have to. But I want to emphasize that these generalizations are nothing more than a broad statement about possibilities. Generalizations do not necessarily reflect individual realities. Please apply these generalizations with responsibility and care, and with an eye for the uniqueness that makes each dog different.

Next Section: Get One
Previous Page: Nature vs. Nurture

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