Monday, May 20, 2013

Training to Generalize

“New Yorkers are rude and pushy!”  “Catholics believe suffering is good for you – no pain meds in their hospitals!”  Sounds like trash talk from ignorant bigots, yet I’ve heard these remarks at my Unitarian Universalist congregation.  However, everyone there has learned not to make rude remarks about Londoners or Jews.  Why are some groups subject to verbal abuse and others not?
The answer lies in a dog training principle. Dogs need to learn a cue in different contexts before they can generalize. After I taught my dog Maggie that the cue “Wait!” meant wait for permission to exit at the back door, I had to teach her “Wait!” meant the same thing at the front door.  Dogs can’t abstract and generalize as well as people, who have language, can.
I’ll still have to teach Maggie not to bolt out the gate, even though she knows to “Wait!” at the front door and the back door.  Also, some members of my congregation need to learn that the cue, “know about a group”  means to wait before making prejudiced comments about that group.

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