Overgeneralization: What It Is, Why It’s Dangerous and How to Avoid It

The human mind is a very intriguing thing. It can help us get a better, broader and deeper grasp of reality, but it can also deceive us immensely. It has the ability to elucidate the truth, but also to distort it. And it does both things recurrently.

Working as a confidence and communication coach, I found that one of the most common and dangerous ways for our minds to distort reality is through a thought process called overgeneralization.

In order to understand overgeneralization, let’s first take a quick look at generalization.

Generalization is the process of extending the characteristics of a number of elements from a group or class to the entire group. These elements can be people, animals, objects, events, etc.

Basically, we come in contact with a several elements from a category, we notice a certain attribute they have, and by generalizing, we conclude that all elements within that category have that attribute.

In terms of formal logic, it goes like this:

A2, which is a member of group A, has characteristic X.

A3, which is a member of group A, has characteristic X.

A4, which is a member of group A, has characteristic X.

Therefore, all elements in group A have characteristic X.

So, by getting to know A1, A2, A3 and A4 and generalizing, we form a wide-ranging conclusion, which also applies to elements A5, A6, A 7 and so on, since they are members of group A.

From Generalization to Overgeneralization

Done right, generalization is very useful thought process. It’s a way to expand our field of knowledge beyond what we’ve experienced directly through our senses.

It allows us to infer characteristics of an entire category, without getting to know every single element in that category individually. You see a bunch of cows over a span of time and you notice that all of them have horns, so you correctly conclude that cows in general have horns.

The problem appears when we do generalization the wrong way; or more precisely, when we overdo it. This is overgeneralization. It’s the process of extending the characteristics of a number of elements from a group more that it is reasonable, thus reaching broad and inaccurate conclusions.

There are two major ways of generalizing the characteristics of a number of elements too much:

1. Generalizing from a very small sample (sometimes just 1 or 2 elements) to the entire population.

This leads to the all so common error of thinking you understand an entire class because you’ve dealt with a couple of its members. Examples of this include:

  • The guy who married the first woman he's been with and has never been with any other women, but thinks he knows what women in general want in a man and what turns them on sexually, so he preaches to his buddies about this.
  • The woman who is shocked to learn from a female friend that she got a job promotion by sleeping with her boss, and she concludes that women can only get a promotion in exchange for sexual favors.
  • The person who never met any rich people, but they saw a couple of them on TV a few times and they seemed like arrogant assholes, so they start believing that all rich people are like that.

The other possibility for generalizing too much is a bit trickier. It’s:

2. Generalizing from a large but unrepresentative sample to the entire population.

This is when the sample is generous in size, but the elements in it have some distinct trait that the larger population does not have, so generalizing to it from this sample is incorrect.

For example, let’s say you live in Los Angeles and you want get to know the eating habits of Italians, so you study 100 Italian people from your city and you extend the conclusions to Italians on the whole.

The trouble is that even if your sample of 100 Italians is big, it’s not representative of Italians in general. Italians in LA likely have different eating habits from Italians in New York, and they certainly have different eating habits from Italians in Italy. Because they have been affected by local influences.

So to extend the conclusions your reach to Italians in general is hasty. It’s an overgeneralization.

The thing that’s important for you to be aware of is that…

Overgeneralization Is a Very Serious Problem

It’s an extremely widespread phenomenon, much wider that you may imagine. In my experience, most of the time we don’t just generalize, we over-generalize.

Our minds are so hungry for the impression of knowledge and certainty about our surrounding reality that we often form broad, sweeping conclusions based on little real experience or little relevant experience. This is particularly true when we’re under the influence of strong negative emotions.

And then we rely on these conclusions to make choices and decisions in life. And guess what happens when you base your choices on faulty ideas? You end up making many ineffective choices, big and small, and you screw up your life instead of enhancing it.

Probably the most dangerous conclusions we develop by overgeneralizing take the form of limiting beliefs. These are beliefs that tell us various things cannot be done, they cannot happen, when in reality they can.

Our minds create artificial barriers that do not exist in the real word. And we spend our lives acting as if they are real.

Thus, we feel insecure, we have all sorts of absurd fears, we lack initiative, we miss opportunities and we sell ourselves short. Not because what we want is not possible, but because we deluded ourselves into believing that it’s not possible.

Now that I’ve explained what overgeneralization is and why it’s dangerous, let’s discuss what I’m betting you’re very curious to find out:

How to Avoid Overgeneralizing and See the Reality

Since overgeneralization is a thought process and it generates ideas about yourself, others, life and so on, the first important step for overcoming it is to start paying conscious attention to your thoughts and the ideas you operate on.

When doing this, what you want is to become aware of the thoughts and ideas you have that are broad and generic. I’m talking about stuff like: “Caucasian women don’t like Asian men”, “I fail in everything I do”, “People only care about themselves”, etc.

Many times, even though these ideas may seem true to you, they are in fact the product of hasty, exaggerated generalizations and they distort reality to a large degree.

Whenever you become aware of such a thought or idea, the crucial action to take is to question its validity, by questioning the quantity or quality of practical experiences to support it.

Ask yourself: How do I know this? What’s the real-life experience to prove this? Is this proof truly sufficient and relevant enough?

More often than not, you’ll come up empty handed. You won’t find enough reliable proof to support these generic ideas, and that’s a good thing because it confirms to you that they indeed are generalizations and it’s not worth taking them seriously.

As soon as you get this awareness, you’ll get a jolt of confidence that the possibilities the world offers extend beyond what you believe is possible.

But you’re not done. Unfortunately, your mind will keep going back to the old thinking patterns and present you those old, generic ideas. This is why, probably the most important part in overcoming overgeneralizing, is to persist in questioning your assumptions and shifting your awareness.

Keep noticing your broad thoughts and ideas, keep questioning the practical experience to support them, and when you don’t find much of it, admit to yourself that, bluntly said, you don’t have a clue what the fuck you’re talking about.

It’s an uphill battle at first, but your mind has the ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn. So it will get the message and those overgeneralizations will show up less and less in your thinking.

As soon as you’ve started shaking the foundations of your old, much too general beliefs, you can start executing the final key step for crushing them: taking action to gain real experience and lots of it, and seeing what that experience realistically indicates.

Based on this experience you’ll develop more realistic views, which will empower you and permit you to make the best decisions in life.

If, let’s say, you’re a short guy and you believe that girls aren’t attracted to short guys because you hit on like two girls in your entire life and they rejected you, go out and gets a lot more experience. Meet lots of girls, talk to them, and flirt with the ones you like. I promise you that you’ll reach some interesting conclusions, and none will confirm your generic initial belief.

It’s within this mix of mental and behavioral steps that lays the solution for overcoming overgeneralization. Understand it well, apply it as effectively and systematically as you can, and you’ll drastically improve your thinking, your emotions and your life.

You’ll begin to see the world with new eyes. Where you previously saw limits, you will see opportunities.  You’ll feel free to live your life any way you want and you’ll be confident in your power to fulfill your dreams.

Eduard Ezeanu