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25 Mar Generalization and Inference

Chicago DrawbridgeWhat do you do when you encounter something completely new, such as a new flavor. Can you identify that it is a flavor and that it resembles some flavors you’ve encountered before? If you knew about bridges from experience, but had never seen a drawbridge, or a lift bridge or a covered bridge, would you be able to generalize and correctly identify each of these types of structures as bridges? The first time I saw a drawbridge over the Chicago river, I knew it was a bridge and suspected (inferred) it was a drawbridge. But I didn’t know for certain until I got close enough to see its workings. “The generalization process is an important element of learning. If the process of generalization did not occur, each response would have to be learned in every specific situation” (J.E. Walker|T.M. Shea|A.M. Bauer 2010).

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 5 #25

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Table of Context


Generalization is a form of association — associating prior knowledge with newly perceived things or phenomena as a basis for classification. Continuing from Walker|Shea|Bauer:

“A young child learns the name of an animal (dog). He calls a specific dog ‘dog’ and will soon generalize the name ‘dog’ to all four-legged animals within the classification. He will at times label other four-legged animals, such as cats, cows, and crawling brothers and sisters, with the name ‘dog’.

Four Legged Animals

A toddler is reinforced for calling her father ‘Daddy.’ She will generalize and call all male figures ‘Daddy’ at an early stage of her development. She may call the mailman, milkman, and others ‘Daddy.’ This may result in considerable stress between husband and wife.

If we wish to function successfully in the environment, we must apply the concepts learned in one situation to many and varied situations” (J.E. Walker|T.M. Shea|A.M. Bauer 2010). “When you first attempt to acquire a skill, you have to think about it, rehearse it, and practice it.  It takes consciousness, concentration, and focus.  As you improve your ability to perform the skill it habituates, requiring less and less focus and attention.  It becomes automatic. This ranges from things as simple as tying a shoe to things as complex as a belief system to which you have become indoctrinated.

Class Subclass InstanceIf you have to think about someone, notice them, and evaluate them as individuals, that takes time, energy, and attention.  IF you can just label them as part of a category you can stereotype them and classify them automatically as part of a group about which you already have an opinion.  This automated (habituated) process can refer to occupations (teachers, doctors, cops, priests) to genders or sexual orientations, races, or religions. This ability to generalize saves us time and energy. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to notice, we don’t have to choose.  We can just react in our conditioned way with our conditioned beliefs.

This human skill is useful and necessary.  It is cheaper in terms of energy and time consumed if you can generalize.  If you have to perform a total evaluation every time you go deal with same thing, it costs a lot. I learn each time that I touch the hot stove I will get burned, I can then generalize that if I touch the fireplace with fire, I will also get burned.   We automate these conclusions to save energy for new or different things. Things we have to figure out and solve because they are new to us take time, so being able to generalize is an efficient process” (Newcomb 2011)

Consider these anecdotes from my own experience:

Joe with BeardAnecdote #1: Wearing a beard in the winter is a Minnesota guy thing, so I often wore a beard in winter. As infants, my children were generally shy around strangers. But men with dark, short beards often attracted their attention. Some of the attention may have been the result of mistaken identity (which is not generalization), but in other cases, even when I stood right next to the man with similar whiskers, the baby showed immediate familiarity with the stranger, even though shyness was the normal behavior around strangers.

Anecdote #2: The word “gots” comes from hearing the present tense get and the past tense got and making the cognitive inference that reception implies possession, thus to get is to have. The suffix s representing a continuing condition appears in such words as wants, takes, gets … The generalization that produces the word “gots” is natural and extremely common among children in the United States.

Correct generalizations are probably more common than erroneous ones, but they are often difficult to distinguish from something learned by exposure. When people generalize with language, they are creating words or phrases they have never heard by applying a general rule they have inferred about constructing words.      “Association has always been thought to be central to learning – and here are these molecules, this built-in logic, that allows an individual neuron to associate one stimulus with another” (Kandel in Montgomery, 1989, p. 55).

Spiral Pattern of LightThe ability to make inferences is a learning process that has a spiral or resonating effect. Before we can learn anything, we have to be able to make inferences. When we learn, we become better able to make inferences and thus better able to learn. Generalization is an example of a learning process that requires higher cognitive ability.

Classifying knowledge is a core function of computers. Putting it in as knowledge, using a suitable knowledge representation scheme, and getting it out in useful forms are the important challenges before us.

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