Overgeneralization: 10 Examples and Definition

overgeneralizastion examples and definition, explained below

Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion that involves making broad assumptions about a nuanced topic. It is closely related to the hasty generalization fallacy.

This type of thinking is based on a person’s inaccurate belief system that is often a result of personal bias, narrowmindedness, or lack of experience (Chambless, 2002).

An example of overgeneralization is stereotyping, such as when you see a person with tattoos and decide that they are untrustworthy based on flawed assumptions gleaned from watching Hollywood films.

Definition of Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization can be defined as a cognitive bias or heuristic in which a person arrives at a false conclusion based on limited or flawed information.

It often happens when a person extrapolates their opinions from a few isolated and unrepresentative experiences (Van Dooren et al., 2005). They then generalize their beliefs to an entire group of people. However, because the assumptions are based on too limited a dataset, the generalization becomes too much of a stretch, and is seen as an overgeneralization.

According to Tittle (2011), overgeneralization can take three forms:

  • Scope: where ‘some’ becomes ‘many’ in our minds.
  • Frequency: where ‘sometimes’ becomes ‘often’ or ‘always’.
  • Certainty: where ‘possibly’ becomes ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’

Common Types of Overgeneralization

There are several common types of overgeneralization that are worth exploring in more detail. These include stereotyping, all-or-nothing thinking, fortune-telling, and mind reading.

1. Stereotyping

Stereotyping occurs when a person ascribes characteristics to a person based upon their group identification status rather than their individual character.

For example, a gender stereotype would be to think that men are natural leaders and women are natural followers.

This sort of overgeneralization can lead to unjustified discrimination and coming to wrong conclusions about a person’s ability or personality.

Stereotyping has been found to have serious consequences, especially when unchecked within a culture, and can lead to long-term discriminatory practices and even institutional discrimination.

2. All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking refers to the practice of seeing things in black-and-white terms or two ends of an extreme. It fails to account for nuance or complexity.

This is common among people who engage in psychological catastrophizing (Lissek & Grillon, 2015).

This type of thinking can lead to extreme beliefs and judgments of others, including extreme stereotyping. People may become politically polarized and lack empathy for others’ points of view.

For example, someone might believe that either “you’re with us or you’re against us” when it comes to a political issue, failing to put themselves in the other person’s situation or see overlaps in viewpoints (this is known as the either-or fallacy).

All-or-nothing thinking can be particularly problematic when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It can lead us to having unrealistic expectations of our spouse, strong arguments, and disappointment that life didn’t turn out the way we had fantasized.

It can also prevent us from seeing the many possible positive aspects of a situation, in what we might call “silver lining thinking”. This is because we often become fixated on the negative when engaging in this sort of thinking (Lissek & Grillon, 2015).

Strategies to overcome all-or-nothing thinking include the practice of mindfulness, continual and intentional challenging of our assumptions, and consciously listing alternate perspectives.

3. Fortune Telling

Fortune-telling refers to overgeneralizations that predict outcomes despite lacking sufficient evidence to make a valid hypothesis.

This cognitive heuristic can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, for example, when people foresee how another person will react, so they act in a way to confirm their reaction (see, for example, my discussion of the notion of stereotype threat).

Fortune-telling tends to be a self-defeating behavior that prevents people from pursuing their ambitions, taking risks, and experimenting with controlled risks.

To overcome fortune-telling, people need to attempt to challenge their own negative thoughts, practice self-compassion, and engage in other cognitive behavioral regulation strategies.

4. Mind Reading

Mind reading is what it sounds like: assuming we know what others are thinking or feeling.

This can lead to miscommunication and interpersonal conflicts. For example, a spouse may wrongly make an assumption about what their partner is thinking, without asking for clarification or engaging in perception checking.

Mind reading may, over time, erode trust because people start making assumptions about one another (assuming that the other person is assuming something, and so on).

Sadly, mind reading tends to create unnecessary conflicts that could be addressed with a simple conversation.

Strategies to overcome mind reading include active listening, asking for clarification, and openly expressing our thoughts and feelings in order to prevent misinterpretation through silence. We have some great examples of ways to address mind reading in our perception-checking article.

10 Examples of Overgeneralization

Below are ten examples of how a person might overgeneralize in various social contexts.

Example 1: Job Interviews

People applying for jobs tend to make assumptions about what the employer wants from them. As a result, they send in the same cover letter to every job posting and answer questions in the same way at every interview.

To address this, it’s best to comb through the job posting and try to adjust your cover letter to explain exactly how you can be of service to that particular company and their unique needs. Sometimes, I also like to email the department head or line manager to ask them directly why they are posting the job to get an idea of how to frame my responses in interviews.

Example 2: Relationships

In a romantic relationship, you might overgeneralize about your partner’s response or thought process. I briefly discussed this above in the section on ‘mind reading’.

Just about every relationship has situations where one partner assumes that the other partner is thinking something. We may base this on past behaviors or even past relationships, assuming that all girlfriends/boyfriends behave the same, etc.

Example 3: In Education

Many students lose self-confidence or passion for education based on one bad experience at school.

For example, if you have a teacher who didn’t teach you well, you may decide that you’re dumb, or, overgeneralize and think all teachers are bad teachers who don’t care about you.

This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and cause students to turn away from education, feeling like it isn’t for them.

Example 4: False Consensus Effect

One interesting way we overgeneralize is to assume other people believe the same things that we do. We call this the false consensus effect.

I’ve certainly done this, where I’ve assumed that someone has shared the same beliefs as me simply because they seem like a nice or logical person. But of course, there are nice and logical people with completely different view than us!

Example 5: Generational Generalizations

It seems that every generation makes sweeping overgeneralizations about people of a younger and older generation than them.

For example, a Gen Z might consider a baby boomer to lack compassion for the difficulty of growing up in the 21st Century, or a boomer might generalize and say all Gen Z people are over-sensitive.

We might also engage in belief bias, where we believe an argument someone makes about a Gen Z person being a bad worker because we expect that to be true, without actually analyzing the validity of the argument.

This overgeneralization appears to be a trait that has followed every generation since the beginning of time (wait … was that statement overgeneralizing!?).

Example 6: Rural and City People

The rural-city divide is another common fault line where we tend to make sweeping assumptions.

A rural person who assumes all city people are rude, brash, or too busy to stop and smell the roses is engaging in overgeneralization. At the same time, a city person who assumes a city person is slow and terrible at driving is engaging in the same cognitive distortion.

Example 7: National Stereotypes

When we run into someone from a different country, we may form an overgeneralized opinion of them before we get to know them.

As an Australia, I know this for sure – people assume I’m a big drinker! They’ll invite me out expecting that I’ll drink away with them … they get a shock when they hear me order a glass of water or root beer, and often comment about how I’m bucking the trend of my nationality.

Similarly, someone might assume that all French people are rude or all Americans are loud.

Such stereotypes perpetuate cultural misunderstandings and prevent people from the opportunity to let their own identity shine without the interference of stereotypes.

Example 8: Parenting Styles

Parents often overgeneralize about certain parenting styles, such as their effectiveness or which is ‘best’.

Too many people believe that one approach is superior or applicable to all children, regardless of a child’s personality type.

In reality, each child is unique. As a result, they may respond differently to different types of parenting techniques.

Example 9: Appearance of Wealth

People frequently make sweeping assumptions about someone based on the clothing they wear.

They may assume someone is rich because they have a nice watch, and someone else is poor because they have a second-hand car.

But as many books have demonstrated, such as in The Millionaire Next Door, many wealthy people are very modest in their presentation, while other people may go into debt in order to appear like they’re “keeping up with the Joneses.” As a result, we can’t generalize based on appearances!

Example 10: Political Affiliations

When engaged in discussions about political affiliations or parties, we often assume that everyone who identifies with a particular party shares the same belief system. Of course, this is inaccurate. People identify with parties for a number of reasons, such as family loyalty, economic beliefs, cultural values, or because they’re simply a one-issue voter.

In reality, political beliefs are complex and multifaceted. People within the same party will hold vastly different opinions, which is why there are also intra-party debates about policy and the direction the party should go (think, for example, about the hotly contested preselections in the USA).

Engaging in thoughtful and nuanced conversations with people of various views and parties can help bridge these divides and remind us of the complexity of people’s belief systems.

The Psychology Behind Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is related to the various types of cognitive biases and heuristics such as confirmation bias and availability heuristic (Lissek & Grillon, 2015).

Confirmation bias is an implicit bias that refers to the tendency to seek out information that helps to confirm what we already think (Tittle, 2011). We see this when people engage in selective attention (ignoring disconfirming evidence) and live in echo chambers online.

The availability heuristic is related, and refers to the tendency to rely on easily accessible examples when making judgments or decisions. Clearly, we can see that overgeneralizations occur when we pick out easily accessible examples from personal experience and generalize them regardless of their representativeness.

Both of these biases lead us to overestimate our own ability to make judgments and develop hypotheses, and can get us into embarrassing situations. They both rely on incomplete data to make sweeping generalizations.

Another factor that can contribute to overgeneralization is socialization from parents, teachers, siblings, and our culture (such as in the media). From an early age, we’re exposed to messages and stereotypes from the above influences. These can shape our beliefs and attitudes (Tittle, 2011).

If we’re not exposed to diverse perspectives or challenged to think critically, then we may fall into the trap of making sweeping generalizations and fail to reflect on how our harmful biases are informing our beliefs.

Conclusion

Overgeneralization can have negative impacts on our lives, on others, and especially our interpersonal relationships. By understanding the psychology behind it, we can start to recognize when we engage in this practice and then take some mitigating steps through using strategies such as perception checking and self-reflectio.

References

Chambless, D. L. (2002). Beware the dodo bird: The dangers of overgeneralization. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice9(1), 13-16. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.9.1.13

Lissek, S., & Grillon, C. (2015). Overgeneralization of conditioned fear in the anxiety disorders.  Journal of Psychology. doi: https://doi.org/10.1027/0044-3409/a000022

Tittle, P. (2011). Critical Thinking: An Appeal to Reason. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Van Dooren, W., De Bock, D., Hessels, A., Janssens, D., & Verschaffel, L. (2005). Not everything is proportional: Effects of age and problem type on propensities for overgeneralization. Cognition and instruction23(1), 57-86. doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532690xci2301_3

Xu, C. (2009). Overgeneralization from a narrow focus: A response to Ellis et al.(2008) and Bitchener (2008). Journal of Second Language Writing18(4), 270-275. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2009.05.005

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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