Generalization is a concept of psychology that deals with learning and behavior. It refers to the process whereby information or responses learned in one particular context can be applied to others.
For example, suppose a person learns to open a door by turning the handle left. In that case, they will likely do it whenever they encounter another door, regardless of its design.
Generalization helps individuals become more adaptive and allows them to easily generalize what they have learned across different situations.
By embracing this approach, learners can reduce the time needed to master new skills and become proficient in a much more efficient manner.
However, there is a risk that over-generalization may occur; this means that an individual has assumed more knowledge than they actually have to lead them to make incorrect decisions or assumptions based on incomplete data or experiences.
Definition of Generalization
Generalization is a psychological phenomenon whereby people transfer what they have learned in one context to other situations (Honig et al., 2018).
Scientifically speaking, it involves the process of forming responses or habits based on prior learning experiences and applying them to new contexts.
This process helps the individual become more adaptive, allowing them to quickly develop new skills and knowledge with minimal effort.
According to Sofroniou (2015),
“…generalization is the tendency to respond in the same way to different but similar stimuli” (p. 141).
For instance, when people learn to drive, they can quickly apply this skill to different cars and roads, even if they lack specific knowledge.
Taylor and colleagues (2021) believe that:
“…humans and animals are able to generalize or transfer information from previous experience so that they can behave appropriately in novel situations” (p. 1).
Generalization can operate at different levels, from simple behaviors such as liking a certain type of music to more complex cognitive phenomena such as problem-solving.
In simpler terms, generalization is the process by which one learns how to use what they have learned in one context in other situations.
10 Examples of Generalization
- Riding a bike: When people learn to ride a bike, they develop a range of generalizable skills such as balance and steering. When they start to learn to snowboard, they generalize their balance skills, and are able to pick up snowboarding much faster than their friends.
- Manners: A child is taught to say ‘thank you’ to their mother every time she gives him something. While he at first only does this at home, his teacher starts insisting on manners, and because he has practiced it at home, he can start using those manners in new contexts as well. He has generalized the skill of social etiquette.
- Fear response generalization: If someone develops a fear of spiders, they may generalize this fear to other small insects with multiple legs such as cockroaches. This person has applied their learned fear response to in a process called stimulus generalization.
- Stereotyping: Assuming that all members of a certain group share the same characteristics because you met someone once with those characteristics. For example, presuming that all elderly people are technologically challenged. This is an example of hasty generalization.
- Musical talent: An individual learns how to play the piano by drilling around specific notes, chords, and finger positions until the pattern is ingrained in their memory. Eventually, this skill can be applied to more complex pieces of music without relearning patterns each time. Furthermore, when learning guitar, they can generalize their understanding of music more easily and learn faster.
- Developing language skills: A child may learn to say ‘hello’ in one language from their parents, then generalize this word when attempting to speak another language. In some circumstances, the same word structure may exist across all languages, allowing this flexibility within language learning for both children and adults.
- Modeling behavior: Through observation and imitation of family members or peers, individuals can apply behavior learned from one context (e.g., grammar usage) to another context (e.g., workplace communication). By understanding what works in one scenario through modeling behavior, they can more easily recall certain behaviors when faced with similar situations later on down the line.
- Showing empathy: If someone has observed a positive response towards grief despite their own sadness, they are likely to be empathetic in other difficult situations, even if they don’t know the person facing the grief. So, they can easily transfer any learned behavior from one context to another to provide comfort or assistance.
- Tackling different questions using similar strategies: Students often face multiple choice questions based on facts that appear different at first glance but share similarities once analyzed more closely. For example, solving a math question can be achieved by using the same formula or approach regardless of the different numbers involved.
- Implementing learned behaviors for new situations: An individual who was taught how to manage stress well during college may be able to utilize these methods at work too effectively. If you face bullying or are in a difficult situation, you can draw from the skills and knowledge acquired elsewhere to be assertive and communicate effectively.
Types of Generalization
Within psychology, the concept of generalization varies depending on which context and type of information is being generalized. The most common ones are stimulus, response, and cognitive generalization.
Here is a quick overview of each one:
1. Stimulus Generalization
Stimulus generalization is the process of generalizing learned responses from one stimulus to another that is similar but different.
The goal of this type of generalization is to respond in the same way to objects or situations which evoke the same feelings (FeldmanHall, 2018)
As an example, if someone had a poor experience with one particular breed of dog, they may show fear even when in the presence of other breeds.
2. Response Generalization
Response generalization occurs when an individual develops awareness about cause-effect relationships between certain stimuli and responses thanks to prior behavior observance and experience (Shepard, 1958).
This form of generalization allows individuals to understand how they can use their learned responses in unfamiliar situations as well.
3. Cognitive Generalization
Cognitive generalization involves the transfer of skills or knowledge across contexts or tasks (Gupta et al., 2011).
Unlike response generalizations that rely on known behavior variables, cognitive generalizations allow individuals to apply previously acquired knowledge outside social situations.
For instance, students can apply math principles from one subject matter (calculus) to other disciplines (physics).
So, stimulus generalization, response generalization, and cognitive generalization all involve utilizing past experiences for various scenarios. However, each form does so slightly differently.
Stimulus generalization involves applying previously encountered emotions to similar but different stimuli. Response generalization relies on applying physical behaviors to new observed contexts.
And cognitive generalization transfers facts or skills from one area to another, such as math concepts from algebra to geometry.
Importance of Generalization
Generalization plays an important role in human lives, allowing us to draw upon past experiences and knowledge to make sense of new situations. It promotes adaptability, facilitates problem-solving, and encourages learning.
Here is a look at some of the key benefits of generalization:
1. Promotes Adaptability
By mastering the generalization skill, individuals can become more adaptable to different scenarios and exhibit this acquired knowledge cross-contextually.
This is invaluable for those who need to cultivate proficiency in new skills quickly or are working in industries where they must utilize their past experiences to confront novel issues (Taylor et al., 2021).
2. Facilitates Problem-Solving
With the ability to generalize, individuals can apply what they know from one concrete situation to solve an unfamiliar problem (Sofroniou, 2015).
This trait allows for enhanced creativity and sharper analytical skills when faced with difficult problems or questions.
Go Deeper: Problem-Solving Examples
3. Encourages Easier Learning Process
When individuals can utilize previously acquired knowledge or behavior to tackle fresh challenges such as language building, they don’t have to start from scratch.
Instead, they can use existing strategies and information generated over time (Taylor et al., 2021).
This helps simplify the learning process significantly since no extra effort has to be made for new facts and understanding to be attained.
Critique of Generalization
Generalization in psychology has been criticized for its tendency to overgeneralize and ignore important details, resulting in flawed conclusions.
It can also cause individuals to disregard unique circumstances and apply the same rules or principles across all situations.
It’s often difficult to structure conclusions since human behavior is capricious and rarely follows a straightforward pattern. As such, when blanket statements are formulated without considering individual contexts, the results can be inaccurate.
Furthermore, certain aspects are more difficult to generalize than others – for example, abstract concepts such as emotional states versus concrete facts like mathematical equations.
This makes it harder for individuals to apply generalization techniques across varied scenarios since they may have difficulty figuring out how one event can relate to another.
Therefore, a balanced approach must be taken when utilizing this type of knowledge transfer to achieve effective results.
Generalization in psychology is a process that involves utilizing past experiences and knowledge to make sense of new situations.
For example, once a person has mastered the basics of reading one language, they can utilize those same principles and rules to acquire knowledge about another quickly.
Generalization has three common types – stimulus generalization, response generalization, and cognitive generalization. Each type works slightly differently and helps an individual use previous experiences in different contexts.
Generalization is important as it promotes adaptability, facilitates problem-solving, and encourages an easier learning process.
It also allows individuals to master new skills quickly and draw upon prior knowledge to tackle challenges that may not have been previously encountered.
FeldmanHall, O., Dunsmoor, J. E., Tompary, A., Hunter, L. E., Todorov, A., & Phelps, E. A. (2018). Stimulus generalization as a mechanism for learning to trust. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(7), E1690–E1697. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1715227115
Gupta, A., Vig, L., & Noelle, D. C. (2011). A cognitive model for generalization during sequential learning. Journal of Robotics, 2011, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/617613
Honig, W. K., Fetterman, J. G., & Honig, W. K. (2018). Cognitive aspects of stimulus control. New York: Psychology Press.
Shepard, R. N. (1958). Stimulus and response generalization: Deduction of the generalization gradient from a trace model. Psychological Review, 65(4), 242-256. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043083
Sofroniou, A. (2015). Therapeutic psychology. LULU.
Taylor, J., Cortese, A., Barron, H., Pan, X., Sakagami, M., & Zeithamova, D. (2021). How do we generalize? Neuron Behav Data Anal Theory, 30(1), 1–39. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7613724/