Overgeneralising is one of the common thinking traps that you may fall into that leads to a loss of perspective.
It is also one of the thinking traps that can get in the way of happiness and success.
Human beings are drawn to patterns and use previous experiences as predictors of how the world works and what might happen in the future.
For example, if you burn your hands on a hot saucepan, you will invariably use that experience to moderate your behaviour whenever you encounter a hot saucepan in the future.
However, those prone to overgeneralising tend to draw conclusions, deduce laws and create behavioural rules based on little or no evidence whatsoever, for example;
- John gets stressed at the smallest things. Getting ready to drive to work on Monday morning, he turns the car ignition key, and the car won’t start. He thinks to himself, “Things like this always happen to me. Nothing ever goes right” and proceeds to have a very stressful time for the rest of the day.
- Amy can become angry really easily. She’s travelling by train into town to meet her friend for dinner but is delayed by the passenger in front of her who can’t seem to find their money to pay their fare. Amy begins to think to herself “This is just typical! Why is everyone so ignorant”. Amy spends much of the next few hours tense and angry.
When you are overgeneralising, you tend to use words and phrases that are absolute in nature rather than accurate descriptions of events as highlighted above.
Consequently, this use of absolute statements narrows your perspective on problems and leads to emotional outcomes that have little to do with the reality of the situation.
Overgeneralising in Academic Research
When academics or scientists carry out research it is important that they are aware of overgeneralising when forming any conclusions.
It is very bad practice (as well as poor science) to form a general conclusion using a one-off example of any phenomenon.
If a scientist conducted an experiement and found that by drinking a pint of lager, 5 out of 10 students then sitting an exam perfomed better in that exam than those who did not, it would be an overgeneralisation to conclude that “alcohol improves academic perfomance”.
In order to determine if this proposition is viable, the experiment would need much better controls and a much larger sample size (say 250 students).
It is this lack of data and examination of the salient facts that leads to overgeneralising which can lead to emotions running wild.