It’s 1965. You’re 5 years old. You’re watching your favourite TV show, Mr Ed. You know that Mr Ed is a horse because your parents told you he is. Horses look like really intelligent animals. They talk. They read. They sing. They laugh at jokes. They play chess.
For 25 years, Mr Ed is the only horse you see. Then someone invites you to the Melbourne Cup. Now there are lots of Mr Eds. But there’s something troubling you.
These Mr Eds seem different from the Mr Ed you know from childhood. For starters, none of them seems to talk. You watch closely. People talk to them. But they don’t respond.
These Mr Eds are different colours from the Mr Ed you know. Mr Ed was various shades of grey. These ones come in chestnut and black and rusty red. Oh wait! There’s a grey one. Just like Mr Ed. Surely this one talks.
Your visit to the racetrack, your second encounter with horses, has been a huge disappointment. Everything you thought you knew about horses appears to be wrong.
You halfheartedly watch the race. 24 non-talking horses run around the track. As it turns out, the grey horse wins. Surely the horse will talk now.
But no again.
After the win, the jockey speaks. The owner speaks. The trainer speaks. Nobody asks the horse to speak. And the horse doesn’t attempt to speak.
So what’s gone wrong?
You have made a common mistake. You have based your understanding of the species, horses, on a single representative, Mr Ed. Your mind concludes that if Mr Ed is a horse, and Mr Ed speaks, then horses speak.
We all make this mistake. We do it frequently. We often do it subconsciously.
The Mayans’ first contact with Europeans was with murderous, diseased, unwashed Spanish sailors. The Mayans might have concluded that everyone from Europe is murderous, diseased and unwashed.
If an Indonesian’s first contact with someone from Australia is an obnoxiously drunk and loud gang of teens in a bar on Bali, then she might conclude that there is another 23 million just like them back home.
If a shopkeeper’s first contact with shoppers is a gullible innocent who falls for the flimsy sales pitch, pays an inflated price for an inferior product and accepts a lack of after sales service, he might believe that every shopper will be a walkover.
We have a tendency to generalise. We jump to conclusions – often based on the slimmest evidence. We then choose to act – or not act – based on our generalisation or conclusion. And this is where things go wrong.
We get hurt because we presume that others share our own morality. (I know from experience, having been defrauded by friends whose values I thought I knew.) In World War 1, Robert Graves was shocked when soldiers down a French country lane started shooting at him – without even knowing him.
We have an expectation of how a millionaire dresses. In our minds, someone well dressed must be wealthy. A bum walks into our Ferrari dealership and we shoo him out.
Mathematicians know that if A+B=C, then B+A=C. They know that C-B=A and C-A=B. Real life doesn’t adhere to such simple principles.
If Mr Ed equals a horse, we cannot deduce that a horse equals Mr Ed.
If a grey horse wins Melbourne Cup, we might wait to hear it talk. We’d be waiting a long time.