Puns, the Pareto Principle, and Generalizations

I was hoping now to be able to venture off into lots of really useful observations about people we meet in life and career, only to realize that a couple of lesser factoids needed to be first defined and described.  And in order to do that I decided that I first needed a convenient and recognizable segue.

Puns.  No doubt we’ve all experienced them, followed immediately by that shudder of recognition.  They are also known as paronomasia, but absolutely no one you’d care to admit you know would recognize this word.   A pun is a form of play on words, using two or more meanings of a word or similar sounding word, for the effect of humor by misinterpretation.  Shakespeare was a master of this, and they can be found as far back as ancient Chinese literature.  In today’s world, puns can also be visual.  To be effective, however, the intended audience must first be paying attention as well as have a reasonably larger than average vocabulary.  In addition, a significant portion of puns are in-jokes particular to a small group, and if you are not in this group you can be left out even if you are paying attention and do have a large vocabulary.  The frustration often caused by this latter case contributes to the following general rule, in my experience held (or at least expressed) by most normal people:

Rule 1: The only good pun is one of your own.

Generalizations.  This rule provides me with the proper segue, as I have made a significant generalization.  What is a generalization?  Generally speaking (not sorry), we create generalizations as heuristic tools, those mental rules-of-thumb that we use to help in making decisions.  They are based on what we’ve learned, often vicariously, and what we’ve experienced, and typically we therefore associate a high probability that they are true.  Without sufficient reliable data (who has those when making generalizations?) we’d like a really good chance for our generalization to be true: 80% of the time would be really good.

The Pareto Principle.  When we depend upon the particular figure of 80% we are often applying the Pareto Principle, more often known as the 80-20 rule.  Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian economist, which in itself is an exciting concept, but he did most of his work in Switzerland and made numerous contributions.  One of these was studying income distributions for various countries, where he found that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population.  This observation is the initial basis for what Joseph Juran later suggested should be known as the Pareto Principle, the Law of the Vital Few.  Juran, a famous business management consultant, based this suggestion on the additional fact that 20% of his (Juran’s) garden pea pods contained 80% of the peas.  While there is nothing remarkable about the figure of 80% itself, many natural systems display imbalanced distributions at about 80%.  In business, its application as the Law of the Vital Few says that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your customers.  A more pedestrian application of the principle is that you will spend 20% of your time accomplishing 80% of a given task, and the last 80% of the time trying to complete the final 20%.  The Pareto Principle is a very useful concept when you are not a mathematician and also have no data or information. Or any intention of looking for any.

Taking the above concept of making heuristic generalizations that seem to be highly probable and coupling it with Rule 1 leads me to the following:

Rule 2: The only good generalization is one of your own.

The implications of this Rule are immense.  The first implication is that we should be very wary of accepting the generalizations of others.  This caution is of particular importance when we are confronted with gross generalizations in the media, which are there primarily so that you will continue to pay attention to the media and therefore support their high rates for advertising.  A secondary purpose for generalizations in the media is for the author to pontificate and thus justify (by the large number of eyeballs (s)he attracts in readership) a grossly large salary or commission (you could attempt to apply this to me and this blog, except I do not command a very high salary).  And a third purpose, buried somewhere deep in the paperwork, is the intent to modify your behavior and have you vote against that, buy this, condemn that, and accept whatever is designed to follow, all without further thinking.  All this to say, these reasons are some of the consequences of marketing communications as normally practiced, which are also very closely related to public relations.  Lest we forget, public relations (0Σ at best) was the modified terminology proposed by the originator, Edward Bernays, after Germany made such massive and successful use of his technique during WWI under Bernays’ originally proposed name: propaganda (Σ).

Another reason for not casually accepting the generalizations of others is that you don’t know the observations and experiences that lead to them.  If you could find these out, verify them and then test the generalization, it could well prove to be useful.

The second implication from Rule 2 is that,

Since you are going to make heuristic generalizations based on incomplete information anyway, you should make certain you actively and consciously make your own observations, collect your own experiences, and create your generalization as hypothesis, something to be continuously tested and validated.

This means that your hypothesis is open to be proven false (which also means that you are prepared to accept that it is false and go create a new, improved version for heuristic use.  In other words, you learned something).

So, what will follow will be my own generalizations about people based upon years of observations and experiences (and testing, of course), which I offer to be tested against your own observations and experiences to see which are valid and which may not be.  I suspect very few will be in this latter category, but then again, I’m open to it.  Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Wow, nested generalizations.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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One Response to Puns, the Pareto Principle, and Generalizations

  1. Pingback: Who Are These People? [FP] | Road Signs and Blind Spots

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