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We are all guilty of forms of overgeneralising from time to time. Our bus is late, we sigh and say, “all public transport is diabolical, it is always late, you can never depend on getting anywhere on time using any form of public transport”. The reality is that this one bus is late, on this one occasion. Some forms of public transport may be late on some occasions; however, Government statistics for the year 2021/2022, show that the reliability and punctuality for the majority of bus companies stood at around 90%. So, our comments about the diabolical service are an overgeneralisation; we have experienced something once and then have used this instance to predict future outcomes. We often make such blanket statements out of pure frustration, and usually we are completely unaware that we are doing it.
As long as we are able to recognise that thoughts like these are irrational, that they are not based in any reality, and that they don’t become habit forming, then it is not really a problem. However, for people who are not able to distinguish that these thoughts are an unhealthy way to view people, events or actions, this negative way of thinking can become habitual and constant and may ultimately affect their quality and satisfaction of life, and their mental wellbeing. So, what is overgeneralisation?
What is overgeneralisation?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines overgeneralisation as, “a cognitive distortion in which an individual views a single event as an invariable rule, so that, for example, failure at accomplishing one task will predict an endless pattern of defeat in all tasks.”
Overgeneralising is a distorted way of thinking that results in wrong or misconstrued assumptions. It occurs when a person comes to a conclusion based on one or two single events and makes assumptions that the outcomes will always be the same. The key element in this unhelpful thinking style is that a person takes one instance in the here and now, and then imposes this on all future similar circumstances.
Overgeneralising is one of a number of forms of a condition known as Cognitive Distortions, which are negative biases in thinking that aren’t based on fact or reality. Cognitive distortions aren’t considered a mental illness on their own; however, research suggests that cognitive distortions may occur in numerous mental health conditions such as, but not limited to:
Most people fall into cognitive distortions or negative thinking on occasion; this can happen particularly when we are feeling a bit down. Also, there are times when we have to make assumptions based on incomplete information, so we may generalise. It’s not ideal but sometimes necessary to function. However, some people, apply these cognitive distortions or unhelpful thinking styles, such as overgeneralisation, as an automatic habit that they display consistently. It is often something that happens out of their subconsciousness so they are completely unaware of it.
What are the signs of overgeneralisation?
Overgeneralisation can take many forms. You can hear overgeneralising in the language that people use when they talk about, for example, annoyances or frustrations. These words are called absolutes, and are used in blanket statements. Here are some absolute word examples that you may recognise:
- None – No one – Nothing
- Every – Everything – Everyone
When overgeneralising a person takes the events that are happening and thinks of them in extreme terms such as always or never. In overgeneralising, sometimes becomes always, possibly becomes definitely, one person or a few people becomes everyone.
Some common examples of overgeneralising using absolute words in blanket statements include:
- No one ever listens to me
- I’m always the last to know
- The entire world is against me
- You never do anything right
- Everything is going wrong
- Their phone line is permanently engaged
- The party will definitely be boring
- I’m going to be stuck in this traffic forever
- All public transport is unreliable
- Why does everyone have to make so much noise?
How realistic or logical is it that something will continue to occur forever and will literally never end, that it will always or never happen, everybody or everything is the same, or that the outcome of a new experience will be exactly the same as a previous experience? Many of us realise that no matter how bad things are the effect of them is rarely always or never. However, for people who experience cognitive distortions, their patterns of distorted thinking can cause them to inaccurately view reality often in negative ways leading to habitual unconscious overgeneralisation. Such as:
- Experience: A dog bit me
- Overgeneralisation: All dogs bite
- Experience: A friend doesn’t telephone when they said they would
- Overgeneralisation: No one cares about me
- Experience: A relationship ends badly
- Overgeneralisation: All relationships will end, I am never going to find love
- Experience: I made a mistake at work
- Overgeneralisation: I can’t do anything right, I am useless at my job
People who experience the overgeneralisation form of cognitive distortion often display a form of cognitive bias known as the halo/horns effect. This is where they allow a single trait, action, event or behaviour, halo (good) or horns (bad), to overshadow all others that follow. The halo effect pre-disposes them to think favourably of a person or situation, whilst the horns effect pre-disposes them to think negatively of them.
Another form of overgeneralisation is stereotyping. This is when a widely held but fixed oversimplified and overgeneralised image or idea of a particular type of person or thing is applied indiscriminately to anyone or anything in a particular category. Stereotypes lead to social categorisation, which is one of the reasons for prejudiced attitudes.
The use of stereotypes is a major way in which people simplify the social world; since they reduce the amount of processing/thinking people have to do when they meet a new person. Negative stereotypes seem far more common than positive ones; however, neither is advantageous, as they cause us to ignore the differences between individuals. Stereotypes can impact how people interpret information, and how they interact with others.
Applying stereotypes can influence our behaviour and decision-making. When we hold stereotypes about certain groups of people, these beliefs can unconsciously shape our perceptions, attitudes and actions towards individuals belonging to those groups. They can lead to unfair treatment, prejudice and discrimination, particularly if applied to any of the nine characteristics protected by the Equalities Act 2010, that is:
- Gender Reassignment
- Marriage and Civil Partnership
- Pregnancy and Maternity
- Religion or Belief
- Sexual Orientation
One interesting way that people overgeneralise is to assume that other people believe the same things that they do; this is known as the false consensus effect. The false consensus effect describes the tendency for people to believe that their own opinions, beliefs and attributes are more common and normative in others. Psychologists have often attributed the false consensus effect to a desire to view one’s thoughts as appropriate, normal and correct. For example, a person might state that, “Everyone knows that all public transport in this country is totally unreliable”. People may be more inclined to overgeneralise about other people’s attitudes that are important to them, such as their political beliefs, than attitudes that are less important, such as their food preferences, although this factor itself doesn’t always play a role.
How does overgeneralisation affect individuals?
Our thoughts have a great effect on how we feel and how we behave. When a person treats these negative thoughts as facts, they may see themselves and act in a way based on these faulty assumptions. Overgeneralising impairs a person’s judgement and their view of the world around them. It can lead to categorising oneself, other people and/or situations or events.
When a person overgeneralises, they can become their own worst critic. “I always fail”, “I will never be able to do that”, “I am a bad person” – these types of negative affirmations will take their toll on a person’s self-esteem and confidence and, ultimately, on their mental and physical wellbeing.
Too much overgeneralising can quickly lead to feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness, anxiety or depression, and this distorted thinking can lead to a restricted life, as a person avoids future failures based on a single incident or event.
A person’s overgeneralisation can also affect those around them. For example, parents who overgeneralise about a child’s poor behaviour, “You are always a nightmare to take shopping”, may affect the child’s self-esteem and wellbeing, particularly if it is said often enough, reinforcing the parent’s opinion in the child’s mind.
Similarly, overgeneralised statements used on a regular basis such as “You never listen to me” or “I can’t do anything right for you” can have a detrimental effect on personal relationships, perhaps annoying, angering or frustrating those on the receiving end of the statements.
Overgeneralising others’ opinions and believing that other people think and act the same as we do, can help to boost self-esteem and this is a clear motivation for believing in a false consensus bias. However, it can also affect a person’s ability to see things from a variety of other perspectives making them harder to consider, and decreasing their significance. People are also more likely to assume that someone who doesn’t hold the same views as them has a more extreme personality than their own, possibly causing friction.
Impact of overgeneralisation
Overgeneralisation can have negative impacts on a person’s outlook, on their interpersonal relationships, on others, and especially on a person’s life. They may anticipate that things will turn out badly and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact. For example:
Someone who has had a bad experience when giving a presentation decides that they will never be any good at giving presentations, despite the fact that they have been successful in the past. They overgeneralise in their mind that they will always fail, and that all future public speaking events that they participate in will be a disaster, so they go on to avoid presentations, even though giving presentations is part of their role. The situation escalates to the point that they leave their well-paid job to take up a far lower paying role that does not include any public speaking. This negative thinking has not only affected their confidence, but it has also affected their earning capacity and career prospects.
When overgeneralising leads to stereotyping, this can create misunderstandings, mistrust and hostility between different groups, leading to strained interactions and strained social dynamics. Stereotyping can have a detrimental impact on intergroup relations and contribute to conflicts. They reinforce divisions and promote a ‘them and us’ mentality, fuelling prejudice and discrimination.
Stereotyping can also impact judgement and decision-making when these beliefs unconsciously shape our perceptions, attitudes and actions towards individuals belonging to those groups. For example, a recruiter who holds the belief that older candidates will not be suitable for their vacancy so sifts them out when shortlisting, is not only illegally discriminating against people with that particular protected characteristic, but they may also be depriving their organisation of capable, productive and motivated prospective employees.
According to research by the Centre for Ageing Better, many older workers are suspicious of the negative stereotypes that employers have about them, and the Human Resources publication Personal Today reports that two in three (65%) over-50s expect ageism in recruitment. With people over 50 years of age making up around one third of the UK workforce, stereotyping and ageism has a marked impact on the UK economy.
Overgeneralisation can have a negative impact on a person’s happiness, mental health and physical wellbeing. It can lead someone to form inaccurate, harmful conclusions about the world that can reinforce negativity and lead to even more unhealthy thinking patterns.
How to overcome overgeneralisation
Cognitive distortions such as overgeneralising can be managed once you have identified that a thought is causing anxiety or affecting your mood. A good starting point with overgeneralisation is to notice yourself using extreme absolute words such as “always” and “never” in your everyday conversations. Consider keeping a thought diary where you can write down a situation that triggered your overgeneralising, how you overgeneralised, as well as the thoughts and emotions that emerged.
- Is it really always or never, or are you dramatising reality? Try to take your emotions out of it.
- Whether other people would come to the same conclusion, what are other perspectives?
- Are you letting your feelings guide you or are you using actual evidence to justify your thoughts?
- If one of your friends made similar blanket statements about the situation you are thinking about, what would you say to them?
Once you focus on your thoughts and recognise a pattern, consider replacing statements such as “all” and “every” with “this” and “some”. Let’s rephrase the blanket statements highlighted earlier in this article:
- No one ever listens to me – At the moment I feel that I am not being listened to
- I’m always the last to know – That’s something that I didn’t know
- The entire world is against me – I’m having a bad day
- You never do anything right – Unfortunately, this isn’t correct
- Everything is going wrong – I am having a problem with this task
- Their phone line is permanently engaged – They are probably busy, I’ll try again later
- The party will definitely be boring – If I am not enjoying the party, I can leave early
- I’m going to be stuck in this traffic forever – The traffic is heavy this morning
- All public transport is unreliable – The bus is late for a second time this week
- Why does everyone have to make so much noise? – The neighbours are noisy tonight
By continually challenging those negative overgeneralising thoughts over and over again, any habitual tendency towards overgeneralising will begin to diminish. Over time, your thoughts will automatically be replaced by more rational thinking. You can also:
Acknowledge that unpleasant things do happen – Life is full of challenges as well as good and bad days. Having one bad day does not mean all days will be bad.
Reframe the thought – Try approaching your situation from a different perspective. Perhaps imagine the best possible outcome versus the worst possible outcome, versus what is most likely to happen.
Focus on alternative outcomes – Instead of thinking about a negative outcome, try to focus on a less negative one or even a positive option.
Instead of taking things in the past as a predictor of what will happen in the future or categorising them as all the same, try to treat events in isolation or people as individuals.
Try mindfulness, that is breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future.
If you are struggling with overgeneralising, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
Anyone can experience overgeneralisation; it is a common way of distorted thinking that most of us do at least a little of. However, certain situations can’t afford to be overgeneralised such as those that affect our self-esteem. That is because they have such a profound effect on our mental health, especially on anxiety and depression. When our thoughts are distorted, our emotions are too. By becoming aware and redirecting these negative thoughts, we can significantly improve our mood and quality of life.